The Sugar Sponge: A New Treatment for Diabetes?

This week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (link here), scientists reported that they had made a new type of molecule that soaks up glucose and could be used in the future as a more effective treatment for diabetes.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a disease that stops people from being able to regulate the amount of sugar in their blood properly. This means that people with diabetes can have blood sugar levels far above or below normal. Both high and low blood sugars levels are very dangerous and can cause comas or even death. Also, people living with diabetes have a higher risk of getting diseases such as heart disease, stroke or kidney failure.

In healthy people a hormone called insulin causes glucose to be absorbed away from the blood. This helps control blood sugar levels. However for people with diabetes this is not the case. There are two main types of diabetes:

  • Type I – Patients don’t make enough insulin.
  • Type II – Patients have normal insulin levels, but their bodies are less sensitive to it.

The most common is Type II diabetes and is usually caused by poor, high-sugar diets and being overweight. The cause of Type I diabetes in unknown. In both cases it is common for patients to need to inject themselves with insulin to manage their blood sugar levels. This usually has to be done at least once a day, sometimes even more often.

The Sugar Sponge

Motivated by the need for a better alternative to treat diabetes, scientists at Tongji University, China developed what they call a glycopolymersome. We’ll just call it a sugar sponge. This is a small, round particle with a hollow core. By small I mean less than one millionth of a metre! The wall of the particle is made out of a mesh of long interwoven strands. Trapped within these strands is a protein called ConA. ConA likes to bind to glucose which means that it can take glucose from the blood and deposit it inside the sponge. Importantly, the sponge can work both ways. This means that if blood glucose levels get too low, ConA can take the sugar out of the sponge and put it back into the blood.

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How the sugar sponge works. Glucose is shown as black dots. Credit: 10.1021/jacs.7b03219

The idea then is that patients can inject themselves with this sugar sponge. It will then either absorb or release glucose to keep a healthy blood glucose level. The advantage here is that the sugar sponge was able to keep blood sugar at a healthy level for 3 days in diabetic mice. This means that patients would have to take the sugar sponge far less often than insulin.

Another useful feature of the sugar sponge is that when it absorbs sugar it swells up and becomes bigger. It’s easy for scientists to detect this change in size, which means the sponge itself can also be used to watch glucose levels. This could be used to give doctors feedback on the effectiveness of the treatment and could help to tailor individual prescriptions.

Outlook

It may be a long time till we see the sugar sponge as a treatment option for diabetic patients, since the drug approval process can take many years. However this paper demonstrates an exciting new approach to treating the disease and will hopefully improve the quality of life of those that use it.

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