A cone snail attacking a fish
Because insulin is such a big molecule, it can take a while to act. Scientists have been trying to make insulin smaller without losing any of its function, but they haven’t been successful yet. Now, researchers including Professor Daniel Chou from Stanford University are trying to mimic the chemical structure of cone snail insulin venom and tweak it slightly to improve its effectiveness in people.
If these researchers manage to create this smaller version of insulin, our skin should be able to absorb it much faster than current insulins. Ultra-fast insulins like this would reduce the time you need to wait between injecting and eating and also offer hope for fully closed loop systems, which don’t require a person to give warning of meals and exercise.
A diagram of Professor Langer’s insulin pill design
The clever design features a tiny spring which propels an arrow of insulin directly into the stomach lining. This happens about an hour after you swallow the device, which is packed inside a biodegradable case, to allow time for it to reach the stomach. But how do you make sure the insulin is always fired into the stomach wall? That’s where the tortoises come in.
A species called the leopard tortoise is self-orienting, which means that it always stays upright. No matter how the tortoise falls or rolls, it will always end up on its feet. This clever trick is due to how its weight is distributed. Inspired by these tortoises, Professor Langer distributed the weight in his insulin pill in the same way so that it always lands with the insulin pointed down.
His pill is called SOMA (self-oriented medical applicator) and Novo Nordisk has so far tested it in 65 people with type 1 diabetes and found no bad side effects.
A leopard tortoise
The glucose-responsive insulin mixture in its soluble state and its insoluble state
A glucagon emergency rescue kit to treat severe hypos
Dr Alborz Madavi, a researcher who founded the company Protomer, believes that a long-acting dose of glucose-responsive glucagon, which could be taken just once a week, would protect against hypoglycaemia. The smart glucagon would turn on at low glucose levels to prevent hypos and work alongside the user’s normal insulin treatment. Dr Mahdavi believes this would help people with type 1 feel less worried about overnight hypos and allow more flexibility with taking insulin.