In the United States, 37 million people have diabetes, which equals roughly one in ten, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of these, 90 to 95 percent have type 2 diabetes, a condition in which there is too much sugar in the blood as the body cannot regulate it effectively owing to problems with a hormone called insulin. Several studies have shown that this condition increases the risk of other illnesses.
Now, an exciting new study led by Yale School of Medicine, UCLA, and the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research suggests that type 2 diabetes could be treated without drugs.
Could we treat diabetes without drugs?
In the study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the team led by GE Research, an arm of General Electric, revealed a novel non-invasive ultrasound technique meant to stimulate specific nerves in the liver. The procedure is called peripheral focused ultrasound stimulation (pFUS), and it directs highly concentrated ultrasound pulses at specific tissue areas containing nerve endings.
“We used this technique to explore stimulation of an area of the liver called the porta hepatis,” the researchers explained in a Nature briefing reported by New Atlas. “This region contains the hepatoportal nerve plexus, which communicates information on glucose and nutrient status to the brain but has been difficult to study as its nerve structures are too small to separately stimulate with implanted electrodes.”
Using three different animal models of diabetes (mice, rats, and pigs), the researchers demonstrated how short bursts of ultrasound directed at specific clusters of nerves in the liver can successfully lower insulin and glucose levels.
Just three minutes of concentrated ultrasound each day was enough to keep diabetic mice's blood glucose levels normal. Currently, researchers are conducting human feasibility trials with a group of type-2 diabetic subjects to determine whether this strategy can be used in humans, which is hopefully moving us closer to the day when diabetes is no longer monitored and managed with blood sugar tests, insulin injections, and drug treatments.
Novel treatments on the horizon
Aside from establishing that the method works, there are several other challenges that must be overcome before it can be widely used in clinical settings since the current ultrasound tools used to perform this type of pFUS technique requires trained technicians. According to the researchers, we have the technology to simplify and automate these systems in a way that patients could use at home, but we need to develop the actual tools before this treatment can be widely adopted.
“Unfortunately, there are currently only very few drugs that lower insulin levels,” Raimund Herzog, a Yale School of Medicine endocrinologist working on the project, said. “If our ongoing clinical trials confirm the promise of the preclinical studies reported in this paper, and ultrasound can be used to lower both insulin and glucose levels, ultrasound neuromodulation would represent an exciting and entirely new addition to the current treatment options for our patients.”
Meanwhile, while type 2 diabetes can be avoided by leading a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a healthy weight, and hopefully one day being treated without drugs, there's nothing you can do to avoid type 1 diabetes, which is why scientists from all over the world are working on various vaccines that could reverse the condition and eventually offer a viable cure.