Introducing the “Sugar Sponge” for Diabetes

People with diabetes usually treat their condition in one of two ways — oral medication or injection. Both methods, however, have drawbacks. Injections can be painful and confusing, while patients often forget to take their oral medications. And both methods can have unwelcome side effects. Could there be another way?

Diabetes researchers in China think there might be. A team of scientists led by Jianzhong Du, PhD, of Tongji University in Shanghai reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on their development of what they call a “sugar sponge.” Injected into the bloodstream of diabetes patients, it is meant to soak up glucose, or blood sugar, the way a kitchen sponge soaks up water. But these sugar sponges are much, much tinier than a kitchen sponge — about 1/100th the width of a human hair, which is why they’re called “nanomachines.” Sugar sponges are minuscule hollow plastic balls coated with a protein called concanavalin A. In the bloodstream, the concanavalin A adheres to glucose, which then becomes trapped inside the plastic sphere. As Dr. Du explains it, “Like sponges sop up water and swell, our sugar sponge absorbs glucose and swells.” The hollow balls also work the opposite way — when glucose in the bloodstream becomes low, the nanomachines release it.

The researchers’ trial involved 20 mice with diabetes. Five of the mice were given sugar sponge injections; the others were injected with nonabsorbent materials. The blood sugar of the mice who received the sponges returned to normal; the blood of the others didn’t. However, after two days the effect of the sugar sponges wore off and the blood sugar levels of the five mice became high again. Consequently, the first aim of Dr. Du’s team is to prolong the effect of the sugar sponges — “one week, one month, or even longer,” he says. If the effect could be extended to a month, the thinking goes, it might mean that a diabetes patient could receive a monthly injection of sugar sponges instead of a daily injection of insulin — a considerable improvement. The researchers also plan to test their sugar sponges on animals more like humans — monkeys, perhaps. They also need to make sure the plastics don’t pose a harm to human body organs.

So although it will be a while, if ever, before sugar sponges routinely course through human bloodstreams soaking up glucose, it’s an encouraging development that bears watching.

Want to learn about additional recent diabetes research? Read “Researcher Develop Sweat Sensor for Diabetes” and “Painless Skin Patch Could Eliminate Insulin Injections and Finger Pricks.”

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