Caffeine-sensitive cells may let diabetics control their blood sugar without insulin shots

Coffee could be the new insulin injection for diabetes sufferers, new research suggests.   

For the 1.25 that have type 1 diabetes, injecting insulin is an essential part of their daily routines, as it is for many of some 30 million Americans with type 2 diabetes. 

But Swiss researchers have retooled kidney cells to release insulin on commands delivered through caffeine. 

If their bioengineering experiment works as well in humans as it did in mice, a simple sip of coffee could trigger insulin production and eliminate the needles once and for all. 

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE JOE: A cup of coffee before breakfast could soon replace a morning blood sugar tests and insulin shots for many diabetics thanks to engineered cells

Diabetes is fifth most common chronic disease in the US. 

The insulin-production condition kills nearly 80,000 people a year, and drastically raises risks for other potentially fatal conditions, including heart disease. 

For those born with a diminished ability to produce insulin – a key hormone to the break down and use of glucose from food for energy – type 1 diabetes is manageable, but only by constantly monitoring their blood sugar levels and injecting themselves with a shot of insulin two or more times a day. 

The injections are an effective but far from perfect treatment for the chronic condition.  

Without insulin, a person with diabetes’s blood sugar levels can get too high, they are liable to get a headache, feel weak and even lose consciousness. 

Preventing this unpleasant series of events from unfolding requires one to carry around a blood glucose monitor to keep track of their levels, insulin and syringes to inject themselves. 

Since glucose enters the bloodstream after the consumption of food, people with diabetes typically check in inject themselves just before breakfast lunch and dinner.  

But forgetting one or more of these implements is common, and so, therefore, are diabetes complications. 

Researchers at ETH Zurich are working on a promising, simpler solution. 

Led by biotechnologist Martin Fussenegger – best known for his ‘mind-controlled’ gene therapy research – the team engineered special kidney cells that could drastically improve the quality of life of diabetics. 

Insulin is typically produced in the pancreas, but the organ does not function as it should, shortchanging people with diabetes the crucial hormone. 

So Dr Fussenberger instead supercharged kidney cells to turn them into insulin-makers. 

They gave the cells a second superpower, too: caffeine receptors. 

This meant that the insulin-producing kidney cells would release their wares whenever caffeine was detected in the bloodstream. 

This would mean that just adding a cup of caffeinated tea or coffee – the latter of which, incidentally, may even have protective effects against type 2 diabetes – could trigger insulin production and cut the injection out of the equation. 

Next, the research team tested out the caffeine-insulin system cells in 10 diabetic mice to test it out. 

When the diabetic mouse drank coffee, they had just as much control over their blood sugar levels as non-diabetics did – suggesting that, someday, humans could too. 

What’s more, the automated bio-system seemed to safely keep the mice from accidentally overdosing on insulin.

‘To my knowledge there are no other significant sources of caffeine in food,’ said Dr Fussenberger. 

‘Even very small trace amounts of caffeine will not trigger the system,’ he added, though it is not clear how many cups of coffee might be too many for the diabetic mice.