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Glucose-responsive insulin

‘Smart’ insulins or glucose-responsive insulins are being designed to only turn on when they're needed and off when they're not.  These insulins could make hypos history and help ensure perfect glucose control throughout any given day.

A person with type 1 diabetes would take an injection, or perhaps even a pill, of one of these insulins – enough to cover the needs of a day – and the smart insulin would circulate in the body, inactive, until blood glucose levels start to rise. As glucose levels rise, the insulin would go to work to bring these levels back down.

'Smart' insulins will turn on when they're needed
‘Smart’ insulins like this will turn on and off when needed

One concept of how this could work is shown in this diagram. When blood glucose levels are low, a ‘binding element’ (represented by the green spheres) stays attached to the insulin (orange lines), preventing it from working. As blood glucose levels rise, glucose molecules (grey hexagons) help to free the insulin from the binding element, allowing the insulin to go to work, which will bring glucose levels back down. Finally, as glucose levels return to normal, the release of insulin stops until it is needed again.

In other words, a smart insulin would automatically activate or deactivate in response to changing glucose levels in the blood, thus giving tighter control – essentially as if the beta cells were working normally.

Although this research is at an early stage, at JDRF we believe this idea could be utterly transformative for people with type 1. At a stroke, an effective smart insulin could offer tight glucose control, eliminate hypos, prevent complications and free people from glucose monitoring.

What role is JDRF playing in the development of smart insulins?

Dr John Fossey
Dr John Fossey

JDRF is actively supporting smart insulin research. We’re currently funding nine projects across the world, which will allow us to explore different possible designs for smart insulins. Our projects range from initial exploration of new ideas through to potential drugs that will soon be ready for preclinical testing to see if they work well enough to go forward to human trials.

One of these smart insulin projects is based in the UK. JDRF is currently funding Professor John Fossey’s laboratory-based project at the University of Birmingham. Prof Fossey and his team are building a special packaging material to make tiny capsules that could insulin inside. The capsules would only release the insulin when blood glucose levels were high, and stop releasing insulin when blood glucose levels dropped low.  Read more about this here.