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Insulin-Producing Cells Switched On and Off by Light

In a new study, researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts discovered a way to make beta cells produce more insulin using light. The study was published in ACS Synthetic Biology

These special beta cells were genetically engineered to be light activated. Researchers transplanted these cells under the skin of mice, in which they were able to increase insulin levels by three times when glucose levels were high. 

The mice had been treated with a drug that put them in a diabetes-like state. Using “optogenetics” technology, the researchers were able to turn the beta cells off and on using blue light. 

How did it work?

This process helped the mice: 

  • Produce more insulin
  • Become more sensitive to insulin produced
  • Improve glucose tolerance
  • Improve glucose regulation
  • Have decreased episodes of hypoglycemia
  • Have higher levels of plasma insulin

If used in humans, this process could help people who:

  • Don’t produce enough insulin
  • Have had a pancreatectomy
  • People with type 2 who have lost some of their ability to make insulin

Although this technique would be ideal for those with type 1, it might not be initially successful because the patient’s immune system may want to attack the newly transplanted cells. 

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Why is insulin important?

Insulin is a powerful hormone produced by beta cells in the pancreas that helps cells turn blood glucose into energy. When the body either doesn’t make insulin or doesn’t respond well to it, the complications of diabetes arise.

Everyone with type 1 and some people with type 2 diabetes need to use insulin to manage their diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin because their pancreas no longer produces it. Some people with type 2 diabetes need to take insulin, as they have insulin resistance, wherein their sensitivity to insulin is impaired.

People with type 1 diabetes rely on insulin and sometimes other medications to keep them making insulin. 

What are the implications of the study?

If beta cells can be controlled this way in humans, then people who use this therapy may be able to manage their glucose levels without medications or constant insulin injections which can lead to human error and dangerous highs and lows.