According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 347 million people worldwide have diabetes. In 2004, one of the last years global data was available on the subject, approximately 3.4 million people died from the disease. Those who suffer from type 1 diabetes are dependent upon insulin for their survival, and it is type 1 diabetes that can most benefit from intervention by experts in nanotechnology.
Type 1 Diabetes Basics
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition and an autoimmune disorder. Once diagnosed almost exclusively in children, it is now sometimes found in adults. In bodies that experience type 1 diabetes, the cells in the pancreas which normally produce insulin—a hormone all humans need to convert sugar or glucose into energy—stop functioning normally. As a result, blood-glucose levels are abnormally high.
Type 1 diabetes symptoms include increased thirst, severe hunger, accidental weight loss, frequent urination and possibly bedwetting, fatigue, weakness, blurred vision, irritability, and vaginal yeast infections in females. It is crucial to seek medical attention if your child, your loved one, or you experience these symptoms.
Type 1 diabetes may be hereditary; a family history of the disease appears to be a risk factor. The presence of certain genes is also a risk factor. Exposure to some viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus is also a possible trigger for type 1 diabetes. What is known for certain is that in afflicted patients, the body’s own immune system kills off islet cells in the pancreas, which produce insulin in error. This leads to a build up of glucose in the bloodstream as there is no method for letting the glucose into the cells.
Diagnosis: Nanotechnology and Diabetes Detection
Researchers have very recently (July 2014) created cost-effective, convenient tests for type 1 diabetes based on nanotechnology. These are based on handheld plasmonic microchips and they distinguish between the two forms of diabetes, allowing doctors to recommend the proper treatment regime for each patient tested. This development is an important departure from existing type 1 diabetes diagnostic technology because without it, distinguishing between types 1 and 2 demanded a very slow and costly test that could only be administered and evaluated in a clinical setting. The Stanford researchers who have developed the test are now seeking the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Early diagnosis of type 1 diabetes is key to improved patient outcomes. This is because early treatments that are more aggressive greatly improve prognoses over the long haul. Additionally, early diagnosis will mean more access to emerging technologies and treatments. It may also mean the preservation of the body’s natural ability to manufacture insulin.
In the final analysis, the test is inexpensive enough that family members of type 1 patients will likely be tested as a preventative measure. Researchers speculate that testing may eventually be used across the general population as costs drop even lower. Ultimately many patients will also be saved from inappropriate treatment; the Stanford team has pointed out that many doctors are not even aware that type 1 diabetes can have late onset in adults. Also, if a patient with type 1 diabetes receives type 2 treatment, it can be very harmful.
Monitoring: Nanotechnology “Tattoos” for Tracking Blood Glucose Levels
Right now, type 1 diabetics spend a lot of time monitoring their blood glucose levels—assuming they manage their disease properly. Type 1 diabetes demands that patients prick their fingers multiple times in a day to test their blood. When their glucose levels are too high, patients must perform more invasive acts, injecting themselves with insulin.
MIT and Draper Lab nanotechnology researchers may have a better solution for monitoring blood glucose levels. Both teams are working to develop skin-borne monitoring devices in the form of tattoos which will allow diabetics to monitor their levels more easily and without drawing blood constantly. Created with special nanotechnological “ink,” the tattoos would fluoresce based on blood sugar levels; these changes would be measured by devices outside the body.
The MIT team’s nanotechnological tattoo uses nanotubes in hydrogel that is just underneath the skin. Blood glucose level fluctuations cause swelling in the hydrogel, and this in turn causes a device to see a change under infrared light. Unlike traditional tattoos, these would last around six months.
The team from Draper Lab places chemicals inside nano-sized polymer beads; when glucose goes into the beads, a chemical reaction causes fluorescence. The measuring device senses and measures the fluorescence. These tattoos would last only about one week, so they would be able to be applied by patients.
Treatment: Nanotechnology and Diabetes Drug Delivery
Nanotechnology is also likely to enable treatments and drug delivery for type 1 diabetes that make invasive treatment like insulin injections a thing of the past. MIT researchers are developing nanoparticles that sense blood glucose levels and respond by secreting glucose. In other words, these injectable nanoparticles take the place of the pancreatic islet cells. This technique will ensure accurate amounts of insulin are delivered to patients whenever it is needed.
The MIT team has managed to control blood glucose levels in mice for 10 days at a time with one injection of their gel containing the nanoparticles. More study is needed, including human trials, but this is very promising. A more simplified and reliable approach to drug delivery for type 1 diabetics will revolutionize treatment of the disease.
Diasome Pharmaceuticals is also pursuing a nanotechnological solution for insulin delivery. Their work concerns Hepatocyte Directed Vesicles (HDVs), which would allow diabetic bodies to make up for their lack of pancreatic function by injecting or swallowing pills containing HDVs that attach themselves to insulin and make it more easily absorbed in the liver’s own metabolic process before going back into the bloodstream.
Diasome’s HDV technology is on a relatively high-speed timeline, and is currently in late-stage clinical trials. They have been given approval by the FDA to begin Phase 3 trials with human subjects, and they hope to start them in 2015. If all goes well, this product could be on the market by 2017.
Prevention: Nanotechnology Vaccine for Diabetes in Mice
Nanotechnology may even allow researchers to vaccinate people against type 1 diabetes, eventually providing a lasting cure. Such a vaccine has already cured type 1 diabetes in mice. It contains nanoparticles coated with proteins designed to suppress the specific portion of the autoimmune response that comprises type 1 diabetes without hampering any other part of the autoimmune system.
This kind of research has vast potential, and not just for type 1 diabetes. Other autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis—and even HIV/AIDS, as discussed here—may be able to be cured with this kind of nanotechnology.