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UNC scientist turns to tiny particles to treat diabetes

By Sam Harris
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Nanoparticles – microscopic objects with diameters measured in billionths of a meter – have already aided advances in medicine and science.

They are used in the ceramic coatings of solar cells, to make transparent and protective sunscreens, and to more effectively deliver lifesaving cancer drugs. Now, research demonstrates how they could one day help people better manage Type I diabetes.

In a paper published in May in the journal ACS Nano, lead author Zhen Gu, assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering department at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State, and his team showed that clusters of nanoparticles effectively control blood sugar levels in diabetic mice.

If these particles could do the same for diabetic humans, it would be a breakthrough treatment for a disease that is difficult to manage.

Currently, there is no cure for Type I diabetes, which affects as many as 3 million Americans, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The disease prevents the pancreas from releasing insulin, a hormone needed to get energy from food and to control blood-sugar levels.

Without proper levels of insulin, dangerously high or low blood sugar levels can become life-threatening.

As a result, patients must constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels, and take frequent and sometimes painful injections of insulin to control them.

The nanoparticles developed by Gu and his team may one day provide diabetes patients with the proper levels of insulin, in a seamless and less difficult manner.

“An artificial pancreas-like device, able to continuously and intelligently release insulin with response to blood glucose levels, is highly desirable,” Gu said.

The researchers’ nanoparticles, made of insulin at the core and a protective material on the outside, are sensitive to high levels of blood sugar. When a diabetic patient’s blood sugar rises, the protective material is degraded, and the insulin is released.

The particles, which can be injected under a patient’s skin, afford numerous advantages over traditional insulin injections.

They can be injected less frequently, and are made of “biocompatible” material – material that is not toxic to the body.

“We expect that one injection can actively control blood sugar for at least one week. This is our goal,” said Gu.

“Additionally, the materials used in the formulation of the nanoparticles are all natural products based, and are highly biocompatible.”

Eventually, says Gu, the method could be used to treat Type II diabetes as well. Patients with early stage Type II diabetes require drugs for treatment, and those with advanced cases lack sufficient insulin and can suffer from poor blood sugar control.

“For advanced Type II diabetics, insulin is essential,” Gu said.

“Our nanoparticles could also be extended to deliver small drugs to treat Type II diabetes.”

Now that the treatment has been shown to be successful in mice, Gu and his team plan to perform large animal studies, and eventually move into clinical trials.

If the treatment is approved by the FDA, it may one day enable diabetes patients to live a safer and more flexible lifestyle.

Along with Gu, Daniel Anderson and Robert Langer of MIT were senior authors on the research, which was conducted in conjunction with the Children’s Hospital of Boston.

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