No more needles? Diabetics could one day treat themselves with a cup of coffee

For diabetics, keeping their illness under control by regulating their blood sugar level is a 24/7 job. But one day, it could be as simple as having a cup of coffee after a meal.

That’s thanks to scientists from ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who have been working to engineer cells capable of releasing crucial (and potentially lifesaving) insulin whenever they detect the presence of caffeine.

“We have engineered human cells to sense caffeine and correspondingly produce glucagon-like peptide 1, [also known as] GLP-1,” Martin Fussenegger, professor in the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich, told Digital Trends. “The designer cells are encapsulated in beads of half a millimeter in diameter, made of alginate, a clinically licensed algae hydrogel. When implanted into the body, the designer cells are protected from the host immune system, and are connected to the bloodstream so they can sense caffeine and release GLP-1 into the bloodstream.”

The GLP-1 that Fussenegger refers to is a protein therapeutic that triggers the insulin release in type-2 diabetic patients. Its action is considered superior to the injection of insulin, since GLP-1 does not lead to hypoglycemia, more commonly known as low blood sugar levels. At present, the ETH Zurich team’s engineered cells have only been tested in mice as a proof of concept, although human trials are hoped to follow, after trials with larger animals.

For the study, the researchers used Nespresso capsules, as well as standard types of coffee, including brand-specific ones such as coffee bought from Starbucks. It did not work with chocolate drinks since these do not have enough caffeine to trigger the system.

“In the future, lifestyle and therapy will merge to the extent that type-2 diabetic will no longer realize that they are sick,” Fussenegger said. “[This is] because the designer cells and [patients’] normal habit to consume caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea will control their blood glucose levels more naturally than finger-prick tests and insulin injection. Due to the better fine-tuning of blood glucose homeostasis, we also expect fewer complications and side effects when treating type-2 diabetic patients.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

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