Sugar-Powered Implant Manages Type 1 Diabetes

Since glucose fuel cells were first studied in 1968, scientists have been searching for a way to effectively turn the body’s chemical energy into an electrical charge. However, these biotech batteries have faced biocompatibility issues for almost as long. Recently, a team of researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new fuel cell implant to manage type 1 diabetes, which connects to artificial beta cells that can produce and release insulin. This system could autonomously regulate insulin and glucose levels, potentially treating diabetes in the future.

In type 1 diabetes, an external supply of insulin is required because the body cannot produce enough insulin. Current insulin pumps and monitors rely on external power supplies like single-use batteries. The new fuel cell implant is about the size of a fingernail and covered in a nonwoven fabric and alginate, a highly biocompatible product derived from algae. When implanted under the skin, the cell’s alginate soaks up body fluid, allowing glucose to flow into the power center.

Inside the cell, the researchers developed a copper-based nanoparticle anode that splits glucose into gluconic acid and a proton, generating an electric current. The fuel cell is coupled with an insulin capsule featuring the team’s beta cells, which can be triggered to secrete insulin via the electric current from the implant. The two components provide a self-regulating circuit that can produce enough power to communicate with a smartphone for monitoring and adjusting and even for remote access for medical intervention.

Although the biotech was successfully tested in mice models, the researchers hope to develop it from prototype to market stage. The fuel cell implant could revolutionize diabetes treatment, as it provides a self-regulating system for insulin and glucose levels that does not require external power supplies.