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Light-Activated Drug Could Reduce Side Effects of Diabetes Treatment

Modified sulfonylurea stimulates insulin release

Diabetes drugs that promote the release of insulin from the pancreas can cause side effects because of their actions on other organs, such as the brain and heart. Some can also stimulate too much insulin release, causing blood sugar levels to drop too low.

To help create better diabetes treatments, scientists at Imperial College London and at a research center in Munich, Germany, have adapted a sulfonylurea so that it changes shape when exposed to blue light.

The drug would be inactive under normal conditions, but a patient could in theory switch it on using blue-light–emitting diodes (LEDs) stuck to the skin. Only a small amount of light would need to penetrate the skin to change the drug’s shape and turn it on. According to the investigators, this change is reversible, so the drug switches off again when the light goes off.

In a study published October 14 in Nature Communications, the authors demonstrated that the prototype drug, known as JB253, stimulates insulin release from pancreatic cells in the lab when exposed to blue light.

Lead investigator Dr. David Hodson said: “In principle, this type of therapy may allow better control over blood sugar levels because it can be switched on for a short time when required after a meal. It should also reduce complications by targeting drug activity to where it’s needed in the pancreas.”

He added: “So far, we’ve created a molecule that has the desired effect on human pancreatic cells in the lab. There’s a long way to go before a therapy is available to patients, but this remains our ultimate goal.”

Although molecules that react to light have been known about since the 19th century, only in the last few years have scientists exploited their properties to make light-sensitive molecules with drug effects.

Source: Imperial College London; October 14, 2014.

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