Simon Friedman may have found the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to treating diabetes.
“If you are a diabetic and you use insulin, you are injecting multiple times a day,” explained the University of Missouri-Kansas City professor. “You are always trying to match the amount of insulin that you were delivering with your blood sugar.”
That means the 29 million people — about 10 percent of the population — who live with diabetes are constantly having to check and deliver insulin because their pancreases work improperly. But if Friedman has his way, his invention could make that a way of the past.
“What we are trying to do is create an artificial pancreas - something that is able to continuously deliver insulin in varying amounts depending on what your blood sugar is,” he said. “What we've created is a material that releases insulin, that is injected just like insulin with a syringe underneath the skin, but it stays at the injection site inactive until it is activated through skin with a light source.”
This discovery and subsequent invention recently caught the attention of the National Institutes of Health, which just granted Friedman with $1.4 million. That money will help him perfect his prototype so his team can escalate testing from lab rats to humans.
“We want this to be one to one swappable with how people use their insulin now — same kind of bottle, same kind of syringe, same kind of needle, same kind of injection site, everything identical. the only difference would be that they inject once a day or once a week and then slap on this device, and they'll be done,” he said.
Friedman believes he's just three to four years away from that reality.
“The hard part about being a scientist to keep going when things don't work, which is the majority of the time. To have something like this where things seem to be falling into place, it's really exciting,” said Friedman.
For him and the millions of lives he could help improve.
Friedman believes his method will cut required injections down to once every few days or even once a week. Ultimately, once it's perfected, he hopes to make it so diabetics only have to inject the light-sensitive insulin once every few weeks.
Frequently asked questions via Dr. Friedman
Can light really get through the skin?
Yes! When you see someone’s tattoo, you are seeing light that went through the skin, hit a pigment in the dermal layer and then reflected back through the skin to your eye. So light can definitely traverse the shallow layer of the skin.
Isn’t there a danger of ambient light releasing insulin?
Yes! That is why the site of injection should be covered (shadowed), by a controllable light source. The light source would for example be in the form of an arm band (think MP3 player). This would cover the injection site and prevent light from hitting it, until insulin was needed and the light source specifically illuminated the site.
Is it possible that this approach won’t work?
Yes! This is the nature of research. But given this, we do try to minimize the potential sources of failure and to think as deeply as possible about the potential problems that might prevent success, so that they can be addressed early on.
Terra Hall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.