Painless Skin Patch Could Eliminate Insulin Injections and Finger Pricks

For millions of people who live with Type 2 diabetes, the symptoms and threats of the disease are only a part of their daily struggles. Insulin injections and finger pricks are also part of the daily equation. But what if they didn’t have to be?

That’s the question being posed by a team of researchers at the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), who are at work on a new patch that can painlessly monitor and regulate blood sugar for days at a time.

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“Diabetes is a very serious disease and affects a lot of people. Everybody is looking for a long-acting formula,” said Xiaoyuan (Shawn) Chen, a senior investigator in the Laboratory of Molecular Imaging and Nanomedicine, who led a team of NIBIB researchers in a proof-of-concept study using the patch on mice. The study was published Novevember 24, 2017, in the journal Nature Communications.

Defining the need

An estimated 30.3 million people in the U.S. live with diabetes, with 95% of those cases being Type 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The American Diabetes Association lists hypertension, stroke, kidney failure, blindness, and limb amputations as some of the primary complications of the disease, and it remains the seventh leading cause of death in the country. In addition, NIH researchers note that half of all cases are not well-managed.

People with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, the pancreas-produced hormone that helps move glucose from food out of the bloodstream and into cells where it can be converted into energy or stored. Those with Type 2 diabetes, however, are still able to produce the hormone, albeit in progressively lower amounts. That’s why the NIBIB researchers went looking for an alternative therapy — the patch — which can take advantage of this production ability by delivering biochemical particles that stimulate or curb the body’s own insulin production, as needed. The potential result is huge, minimizing pain and hassle associated with the disease and maximizing accurate treatment.

“A weekly microneedle patch application would be less complicated and painful than routines that require frequent blood testing,” said NIBIB Scientific Director Richard Leapman.

Artist's rendering of the microneedle patch.

Artist’s rendering of the microneedle patch. Image courtesy of NIBIB.

The mechanics of the microneedle patch

Chen’s team used patches made of a natural gummy substance extracted from brown algae, mixed with two drug compounds — exendin-4 and glucose oxidase — and poured into a microneedle form. The compounds respond to the patch-wearer’s blood chemistry to trigger insulin secretion when needed. But as glucose levels fall, so does the compound release, thanks to stabilizing phosphate mineral compounds paired with each of the drug compounds.

“That’s why we call it responsive, or smart, release,” said Chen. “Most current approaches involve constant release. Our approach creates a wave of fast release when needed and then slows or even stops the release when the glucose level is stable.”

Next steps

In mice, the team proved that a half-inch square patch controlled sugar levels for a week. For the device to work on humans, it will need to have greater therapeutic capacity and be altered for application to human skin.

“We would need to scale up the size of the patch and optimize the length, shape, and morphology of the needles,” Chen said. “Also, the patch needs to be compatible with daily life, for instance allowing for showering or sweating.”

Want to learn more about new technology being developed to monitor blood sugar levels? Watch the video “Diabetes and Technology.”

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