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How Does Insulin Work in Our Bodies?

What is insulin and how do our bodies use it?

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
Episode #272

Medical insulin was once extracted from the pancreases of pigs and cows and later purified before being used by humans. Now insulin used to treat diabetes is more commonly produced by genetically-modified bacteria or yeast.

Can Artificial Cells Combat Insulin Resistance?

While pumps and daily injections allow diabetics to live normal, although more vigilant, lives, they still require constant monitoring. The repeated injections can be painful and the constant connection to a pump can be cumbersome. So what if treatments could address not the lack of insulin but the lack of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called beta cells. Researchers have now injected mice with laboratory-made cells that do the job beta cells are meant to do in a properly functioning pancreas. The synthetic cells regulated the glucose level in the mouse’s bloodstream for as long as five days.  

The artificial cells come carrying their own bags of insulin which adhere to their cell’s outer membrane and then release their insulin when the cell is surrounded by excess glucose in the blood. Once blood sugar levels decrease to a more normal level, the little pouches of insulin retreat back into the cell for later use.

Although there remains a lot of research to be done to make the leap from mice to humans, the success with artificial cells in mice suggests that one day diabetics may have a more precise alternative to injections and pumps. The synthetic cells have the further advantage over real, genetically-engineered cells because they are typically more easily mass-produced and have longer shelf lives. Who knows, maybe one day we will be able to monitor and control such artificial cells with an app on our smart phone.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image © shutterstock.

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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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