Health Care

Professor with UNC and NCSU gets grant to pursue innovative diabetes treatment

A researcher with the UNC-NCSU joint department of biomedical engineering has received a $1.6 million grant for an ambitious idea for treating diabetes: creating a synthetic version of the human cell that dispenses insulin in the bloodstream.

The American Diabetes Association announced this week that it was awarding the 5-year grant to Zhen Gu, an assistant professor in the joint program. Gu will use the grant to expand his efforts to engineer man-made versions of beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that store and release insulin, a hormone that helps control the level of blood sugar.

Someone with diabetes has trouble controlling blood sugar, and excessive amounts can build up after they eat, triggering symptoms in various organs. This means those who suffer from the more serious forms of the disease must constantly monitor their blood sugar and periodically inject themselves with insulin.

The treatment works, but it isn’t always precise, and those with diabetes can still suffer complications when the timing or dosage is wrong, including seizures and death.

“We want to synthesize molecules that mimic virtually every aspect of beta cells using the chemicals we have in our toolbox,” said Gu, a member of the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, and the UNC Diabetes Care Center. “Nobody has ever tried to do this before. I admit, it might seem like a crazy idea.”

Gu already has had some early success, though. With an earlier $50,000 pilot grant from the N.C. Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute, he was able to create synthetic versions of the beta cells’ storage sacs that demonstrated the ability to detect increases in blood sugar levels and regulate the release of insulin.

These “intelligent insulin nanoparticles,” as Gu calls them, are about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. In a paper published last year in the journal Biomacromolecules, he showed that one injection of the particles under the skin of diabetic mice kept blood glucose levels in the normal range for up to five days.

Gu plans to use the ADA funding to improve the particles and make them last longer after injection.

Approach could be a godsend

The approach is a longshot, but the potential benefits are so great that at least one major pharmaceutical company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing a similar idea but with different chemistry, said Dr. John Buse, director of the UNC Diabetes Care Center and a collaborator with Gu.

“Some people think it’s essentially impossible because you have to have a sort of chemical system that is as smart as or smarter than people are,” Buse said. “But the truth of the matter is, we need to remember the body is basically a chemical system.”

Gu, a prolific thinker who Buse said “probably has more ideas before breakfast that the rest of us do in a month,” has previously explored a wide range of ideas for fighting diabetes, among them microscopic capsules crafted from shrimp shell and seaweed, and “microneedle patches” that give painless injections. He also has engineered tiny particles that show promise in delivering a cocktail of drugs into cancer cells.

The new approach to diabetes treatment doesn’t have to be perfect to offer a big improvement, Buse said, given that there are huge numbers of people with poor control over their blood sugar because they either can’t or won’t take responsibility for all the details of managing their diabetes.

“For those people even an imperfect system would be a godsend,” he said. “I suspect it will work at some level, and while it may not be a cure for diabetes, I think it’s going to be an enhancement in our capabilities.”