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U of U researcher working on ‘smart insulin’ to improve quality of life for those with diabetes

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Posted at 6:37 PM, Mar 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-03 00:06:51-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A breakthrough treatment for type 1 diabetics is happening in Utah.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, JDRF, donated $750,000 to a local bio-chemist at the University of Utah, Danny Chou Ph.D. He is one of four “smart insulin” researchers in the world who are studying this new form of treatment for type 1 diabetes.

Chou is developing a “smart insulin.” Unlike regular insulin given to type 1 diabetics throughout the day and before each meal, this “smart insulin” would only need to be taken, potentially, once a week and it would be able to read sugar levels in the blood.

A type 1 diabetic’s pancreas does not produce insulin. They must inject insulin several times a day, or wear an insulin pump that drips insulin into the bloodstream throughout the day to keep the blood sugar levels in control.

If the blood sugar levels are not controlled, complications will happen. And, they can be deadly if not treated. The “smart insulin’s” job is to control the blood sugars with less responsibility from the diabetic person, and it would reduce long-term complications.

“For example, we are trying to put a glucose sensor on the insulin in a way that regulates the binding between the insulin and the insulin receptors,” explained Chou. “So that we can control the activity of the insulin.”

Chou said a non-diabetic has beta cells that can sense when the body has sugar in its system (after eating), and it automatically produces insulin to bring that blood sugar level back down to normal.

“What we want to do is, we can manage the disease in a way that you don't feel it's a pain in the neck through all your life,” Chou said. “You can eat whatever you want; you don't have to worry about putting insulin inside your body right before your meal.”

Chou has met with many type 1 diabetics during his years of diabetic research; including working with the local Utah/Idaho JDRF chapter. He also met a 10-year-old girl named Mykah Bullard.

“I was diagnosed at 1 ½ -years-old,” Mykah said.

She has learned all about Chou’s research.

“I am really excited about it,” Mykah said. “He is creating an insulin that will kind of do things by itself, kind of like a pancreas. If it senses you are getting [a high blood sugar number, anything above 150] it will turn itself on more and give more insulin; and if it senses you going low, it'll stop giving itself more insulin.”

She knows, that “smart insulin” would make her life a lot easier.

Currently she is armed, literally, with two diabetic monitoring devices. She wears an Animas insulin pump that is attached to her right arm, and a Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitor on her left arm. The monitor checks her blood sugar every five minutes, and helps her stay in control and regulate her insulin levels, which she controls through her insulin pump.

However, if she could just take one injection a week of “smart insulin”, her life would be forever better.

“I don't think I'd have to do as any injections, and I wouldn't have to give as much insulin,” she said.

In fact, Mykah believes in the research so much she is helping fund it. Her family runs a tennis tournament in honor of her grandmother who has passed away, but who was a passionate tennis player. It’s called the “Of Love Tennis Tournament.”

They chose to take the proceeds from the tournament and donate them to a good cause, and Mykah picked Chou’s research. They raised thousands of dollars and donated $30,000 to the U of U’s diabetes research.

“I hope that it will help him, so he can do more research and create it,” Mykah said.

“We are so grateful for all her hard work,” Chou said.

For more details on the “smart insulin" project, click here. 

For more information on the Utah-Idaho JDRF chapter, visit their Facebook page.