Diabetes is a debilitating disease that effects millions of Americans a year. It is a condition which the body produces little or no insulin. Insulin is used to properly control glucose or sugar levels and is critical to transport glucose into cells for nutrients. Therefore, individuals with diabetes must rely on an external source of insulin. In many cases, patients will wear an insulin pump, which regulates their insulin levels, while others rely on insulin injections. Diabetes is not a curable disease and patients must orient their lives to accommodate the lack of insulin. Therefore, many research groups are investigating different way to treat diabetes and make patients’ lives easier.
One research group at ETH Zurich, led by Dr. Martin Fussenegger, are looking into ways to naturally trigger cells in the body to produce insulin. The goal is to overcome the need for injected insulin or an insulin pump and naturally produce insulin in the body. One solution reported recently in The Lancet, suggests implanting capsules of insulin-producing designer cells in the body. The idea is that individuals would be able to control insulin production and release into the blood using these designer cells from an external source such as light, temperature, and electric fields. Interestingly, one way they have designed these cells is by activating them by playing specific music, particularly the song, “We Will Rock You”, by the band Queen.
In order to make the designer cells sensitive to music, specifically sound waves, Fussenegger and colleagues used protein from the bacterium Escherichia coli or E. coli. These proteins can be stimulated by sounds and are found in animals and bacteria. Interestingly, the protein in the cells of these bacterium help regulate the movement of calcium ions in and out of cells. This process is critical in stimulating cell response and directing change within the body on a cellular level. The design of this process was adapted and used to make a similar system in the human designer cells. As expected, with the channel design to move calcium ions in and out of the cell resulted in automatic response with sound, particularly music. The activation of the designer cells through this process allows the vesicles with insulin in the cell to exit out of the cell and enter the bloodstream.
The concept and idea behind triggering the designer cells with music was determined after researchers found the frequency and volume levels necessary to activate the ion channels embedded in the cells. They found that 60 decibels (volume; dB) and 50 hertz (frequency) were necessary for ion channel activation. In order to maximize insulin producing the sound had to continue for a minimum of 3 seconds and pause for a maximum of 5 seconds. To determine the sound optimal for this pattern, researchers tested different music finding that rock music was ideal, specifically the song, “We Will Rock You”.
Researchers tested this design and found the only way to trigger a response was through the mice physically laying on the loudspeaker as opposed to freely walking around with music playing. Ambient noise or other noise not directly on the cells will not trigger a response. Although, there is risk and some limitations in testing this in humans with the concern that any noise might trigger continuous release of insulin, it is an interesting application to further investigate.
Fussenegger and others have introduced a novel idea to externally control designed insulin producing cells implanted in the body. Even with human application far away, it brings up an interesting concept to how scientists and physicians can more effectively treat patients with diabetes.