New fuel cell implant can help manage type-1 diabetes

This fuel cell resembles much like a tea bag and can be implanted under the individual's skin. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
The prototype fuel cell is wrapped in a fleece and is slightly larger than a thumbnail.
The prototype fuel cell is wrapped in a fleece and is slightly larger than a thumbnail.

Fussenegger Lab / ETH Zurich 

Scientists have created a novel implantable fuel cell that could be used to improve type 1 diabetes management in the future. Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which our immune system destroys insulin-producing cells (beta) in the pancreas.

Developed by scientists from ETH Zurich, the prototype functions by using excess glucose in the blood to generate electrical energy.

"The new system autonomously regulates insulin and blood glucose levels and could be used to treat diabetes in the future," said Martin Fussenegger, the lead researcher of this invention, in a statement.

How does the implantable fuel cell function?

This fuel cell resembles much like a tea bag and can be implanted under the individual's skin. 

It was designed using a nonwoven fabric along with the coating of alginate —  an algae product used mostly for biomedical purposes. The alginate soaks up body fluid, which in turn allows the glucose to pass from the tissue into the implanted fuel cell, explains the official statement. 

Inside the fuel cell, the team has placed a copper-based nanoparticle anode. It is specifically designed to split glucose into gluconic acid and a proton to produce an electric current.

Furthermore, the fuel cell is combined with artificial beta cells that allow the production and secretion of insulin just by the touch of a button. 

Various step-by-step process occurs that enables power generation along with a controlled insulin supply.

The process starts with the detection of excess glucose, and the system begins to generate power. The statement explains: "This electrical energy is then used to stimulate the cells to produce and release insulin into the blood. As a result, blood sugar dips to a normal level. Once it falls below a certain threshold value, the production of electricity and insulin stops."

This functioning has been successfully tested in mice. There is currently only a prototype; however, the team believes that an industry partner will be required for large-scale production. Every year, millions of people worldwide are affected by type 1 diabetes. According to a study published in The Lancet, there were approximately 8·4 million individuals with type 1 diabetes in 2021.

The team has detailed this prototype in the journal Advanced Materials.

Study abstract:

Currently available bioelectronic devices consume too much power to be continuously operated on rechargeable batteries and are often powered wirelessly, with attendant issues regarding reliability, convenience, and mobility. Thus, the availability of a robust, self-sufficient, implantable electrical power generator that works under physiological conditions would be transformative for many applications, from driving bioelectronic implants and prostheses to programming cellular behavior and patients' metabolism. Here, capitalizing on a new copper-containing, conductively tuned 3D carbon nanotube composite, an implantable blood-glucose-powered metabolic fuel cell is designed that continuously monitors blood-glucose levels, converts excess glucose into electrical power during hyperglycemia, and produces sufficient energy (0.7 mW cm−2, 0.9 V, 50 mm glucose) to drive opto- and electro-genetic regulation of vesicular insulin release from engineered beta cells. It is shown that this integration of blood-glucose monitoring with the elimination of excessive blood glucose by combined electro-metabolic conversion and insulin-release-mediated cellular consumption enables the metabolic fuel cell to restore blood-glucose homeostasis in an automatic, self-sufficient, and closed-loop manner in an experimental model of type-1 diabetes.

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