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‘Smart’ Insulin Patches Developed at UNC

Glucose-responsive “smart insulin patches” like this one developed by UNC and N.C. State could one day simplify the way people manage diabetes.( Image credit: COURTESY OF ZHEN GU)

For the 29 million Americans living with diabetes, a less painful and more accurate way to monitor their blood sugar is one step closer to reality.

Zhen Gu, whose team at the UNC-N.C. State Biomedical Engineering Program has been leading the effort to develop “smart” insulin patches for treating diabetes, co-founded a company based in Research Triangle Park two years ago with the idea of delivering his patented diabetes treatment to people around the world. Now his company, Zenomics Inc., has received a $5.8 million investment from Chinese company MicroPort Scientific to help fulfill that goal.

Measuring and balancing blood glucose levels with painful finger pricks and insulin shots is a never-ending worry for people with diabetes. Every day, they must track their diet and activity, adjusting blood glucose with precisely calculated doses of insulin along the way. Although insulin delivery by injection or pump has become a routine and effective treatment for Type I and advanced Type II diabetes, neither option is particularly convenient or comfortable.

There is also the issue of timing; glucose levels in the blood are often already too high by the time insulin is delivered. Even the most advanced methods that use pumps coupled with continuous glucose monitors can lag behind actual glucose levels by five to fifteen minutes.

The Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University was founded in 2003 to bring engineers and medical researchers together to solve pressing healthcare issues. Gu, an associate professor in the department, has been working with his colleagues to remedy the imperfections of current insulin delivery methods.

“In the healthy body, insulin secretion always quickly follows the blood sugar levels,” says Gu. “We want to mimic this process in a scientific way ourselves.”

Their solution is a glucose-responsive “smart” insulin patch that is worn on the skin and instantaneously releases insulin as needed. Roughly the same size as a dime, the patch contains 121 microneedles, each thinner than a human hair and pre-loaded with tiny packets of insulin and glucose oxidase, an enzyme that immediately responds to high glucose levels and sparks a reaction that releases insulin.

The on-demand actions of the insulin patches could help people with diabetes worry less about their glucose levels regardless of their activity levels and food intake while also increasing the accuracy of insulin dosing. Not only would the patch prevent high blood glucose, it also would reduce the chance of taking too much insulin, which can result in dangerously low blood glucose levels.

“If you’re a very strict, Type A person who is on an extreme schedule, basically always eats the same thing, has the same activity, and you’re really good at math and nutrition, then you might not need this patch,” says Susan Spratt, associate professor of medicine at Duke University. “But no one is perfect.” Spratt is not involved with the study but has been closely following the patch’s development.

In beginning stages, Spratt, who is also a practicing endocrinologist, sees the patch as something people might wear while still monitoring and under-dosing their existing insulin injections. But in the long run, she says it could deliver all of a person’s daily insulin needs. She added that it could be very useful with children and the elderly, where managing food intake and injections can be a challenge for caretakers.

“It could replace the way we give insulin completely,” Spratt said. “But even if it didn’t, I think it could be incredibly useful.”

So far, the patch has been shown effective at controlling blood glucose in diabetic mice. In the future, Gu says that some people may need just one patch per day, but this will vary depending on the patient’s individual needs and is an aspect they have continued to refine since the patch was first described in 2015.

With Zenomics Inc., Gu plans to advance the development of the insulin patch, and the investment from MicroPort Scientific, which specializes in biomedical devices, is an essential part of those plans.

“They are quite interested in our smart insulin device,” Gu said.

Initially, the funding will help Zenomics Inc. recruit employees to work in its labs, where Gu’s patented technology will soon be tested on animals such as mini-pigs. The remainder of the money will finance pre-clinical studies that make sure there are no adverse reactions or irritations caused in humans by the patch material. If both prove successful, clinical trials could begin enrolling people in a few years.

Based on current trends, experts predict that there will be 592 million people living with diabetes worldwide by 2035. While there is hope that there will one day be a cure, for now Gu is optimistic that smart insulin patches will move diabetes treatment forward.

“It is highly desirable to develop some new technologies to enhance the health and quality of life of people with diabetes,” he said.

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