Powered by fuel cell technology, using even blood glucose, the new diabetic implant promises total independence for type 1 diabetes sufferers, automatically producing and releasing the insulin needed.
“The new system autonomously regulates insulin and glucose levels and could be used to treat diabetes in the future,” said Martin Fussenegger of the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich.
In type 1 diabetes, the body cannot produce enough insulin, requiring its supplementation from an external source. Current insulin pumps and monitors also rely on external power sources such as disposable batteries.
In this case, the device designed to be fully implanted under the skin is connected to a mini-generator based on fuel cell technology. Shaped like a tea bag, slightly larger than a fingernail, the generator is covered with a fabric coated with alginate, an algae-derived product known for its high degree of biocompatibility. The fabric allows glucose absorbed from body fluids to be directed into the fuel cell, where it is used to generate electricity.
“Many people, especially in Western industrialized countries, consume more carbohydrates than they need in their daily lives,” Fussenegger said. “This gave us the idea of using this excess metabolic energy to produce electricity to power biomedical devices.
The functioning of the implant is complemented by a so-called β-cell, capable of synthesizing the necessary insulin using electricity received from the fuel cell. Without the need for batteries or insulin supplies to be topped up periodically, such a device could function for many months or even years. Unfortunately, the technology is still at the stage of testing in mice, and it could take several years to complete human trials and launch a commercial product.