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'Smart' Skin Patch Could Improve Diabetes Care

The "smart insulin patch," developed by researchers in the joint UNC/NC State Biomedical Engineering Department. (Credit: The lab of Zhen Gu, Ph.D.)

Researchers have developed a “smart insulin patch” that could improve diabetes care. The skin patch, a thin square no bigger than a small coin, would also do away with painful injections.

Almost 400 million people around the world live with diabetes.

Some require insulin injections – sometimes many times a day - because their bodies produce little or no insulin, a hormone that’s needed to regulate the levels of sugar in the body.

Without the shots, people with so-called Type 1 diabetes would die.

But the injections may someday be replaced by a thin “smart” skin patch, covered with more than a hundred tiny painless needles. The needles have storage units loaded with insulin.

Zhen Gu, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says the skin patch can be programmed to automatically sense the amount of glucose in the blood and - if blood sugar levels get too high - release a precise dose of insulin through the “microneedles,” each about the size of an eyelash.

It’s a so-called “closed-loop” system. That means theres a feedback loop that detects sugar levels and delivers insulin automatically. Such a system has long been the ultimate goal of diabetes researchers trying to eliminate human error in the management of the disease.

Gu says the skin patch minimizes the risk of taking too much insulin.

“Sometimes, if you take too much insulin, it can cause hypoglycemia, which is sometimes even fatal," he said. "So, that’s why we try to develop a closed loop-based system which can mimic the function of the pancreas”

The pancreas is the organ that produces and secretes insulin.

In healthy people, the pancreas is extremely sensitive to blood sugar levels, regulating them with precise doses of insulin.

But people with Type 1 diabetes have to test their blood regularly, to try to figure out exactly how much insulin they need to take.

Some patients with more common Type 2 diabetes also have trouble regulating their blood sugar levels with diet and exercise, and have to give themselves insulin shots.

After many years of fluctuating blood sugar levels, many diabetics develop severe complications, including blindness, limb amputations and kidney failure.

An up-close fluorescent image of the microneedle patch with insulin tagged in green. (Credit: Zhen Gu, Ph.D.)
An up-close fluorescent image of the microneedle patch with insulin tagged in green. (Credit: Zhen Gu, Ph.D.)

Gu and his colleagues found the smart patch could automatically lower and control blood glucose levels in mice with Type 1 diabetes for up to nine hours.

“So, our eventual aim is like one patch – you can maintain blood sugar in the normal range for a couple of days,” he said.

The work is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The smart insulin skin patch could potentially make life easier and less painful for Type 1 diabetics and those with advanced Type 2 diabetes.