Researchers from ETH Zurich have developed artificial beta cells that can measure blood glucose concentration and respond by producing insulin. The team’s work was published this week in Science.
The ETH researchers used the natural glucose transport proteins and potassium channels found in the membrane of human kidney cells and modified them with a voltage-dependent calcium channel, a gene to produce insulin and a hormone that helps to regulate blood sugar levels, GLP-1. Early tests of the cells in mice with diabetes were promising, as the modified human kidney cells worked for 3 weeks, according to the team. “They worked better and for longer than any solution achieved anywhere in the world so far,” lead researcher Professor Martin Fussenegger said in prepared remarks.
Glucose is carried into the cell from the bloodstream via the cells’ natural glucose transport protein. When the cell detects that the blood sugar level is too high, the potassium channels close, altering the voltage distribution at the cell membrane and opening the calcium channel. Insulin and GLP-1 production is triggered when calcium flows into the artificial beta cells.
The team used a computer model to predict cellular behavior and then confirmed the theoretical results with experimental data. “The data from the experiments and the values calculated using the models were almost identical,” Fussenegger said.
It could take a while before the artificial beta cells are ready to hit the market, Fussenegger explained. “If our cells clear all the hurdles, they could reach the market in 10 years,” he said.