Regulating insulin production with smartwatch enhancements

A team of scientists have developed an innovative strategy for manipulating insulin production that utilises the commonly used smartwatch.

The ETH research team have devised a novel method that proficiently controls the behaviour of cells and genes through the use of the LED lights emitted by smartwatches; this groundbreaking technique can potentially regulate the vital insulin production that impacts diseases such as diabetes.

Their research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Smartwatches and fitness trackers have been a futuristic addition to the health industry that has captivated millions of users in the UK alone, allowing users to track their steps, record workouts, listen to their favourite music, and record their heart rate as they burn off calories, oh and they tell the time too.

However, perhaps the most futuristic function of smartwatch technology has only just been realised, with the ETH scientists utilising the integrated green LED light – usually used to measure heart rate – to trigger an implanted molecular switch that can effectively manage insulin production.

Martin Fussenegger, the leader of the research from the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering, said: “No naturally occurring molecular system in human cells responds to green light, so we had to build something new.”

The newly developed molecular switch is connected to a gene network that the team introduced to human cells – using HEK 293 cells for the prototype – with the genes that it contains allowing it to trigger insulin production and various other substances when in contact with the green LED light of a smartwatch.

The team was not required to develop any additional software or programmes to facilitate their creation; they just simply turned on the green light by starting the running app. More recent models that produce pulses of light are even more efficient. Fussenegger said: “Off-the-shelf watches offer a universal solution to flip the molecular switch.”

To develop the molecular switch, the scientists integrated a molecule complex into the membrane of the cells, which are attached to a connecting piece. When the green light is produced, the component that projects into the cells is detached and moves to the cell nucleus, where a gene is triggered that instigates insulin production, reconnecting with the counterpart in the membrane when the green light stops. The team successfully tested their method on live mice and pork rind by infusing them with the appropriate cells.

“It’s the first time that an implant of this kind has been operated using commercially available, smart electronic devices – known as wearables because they are worn directly on the skin. Most watches emit green light, a practical basis for a potential application as there is no need for users to purchase a special device,” Fussenger added.

Despite how beneficial this technology can potentially be, the researchers estimate that it will take at least ten years until we see it used widely, as the cells in the prototype would need to be replaced with the user’s own cells, with the clinical phases being an especially arduous process.

“To date, only very few cell therapies have been approved,” Fussenegger commented.

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