What’s New in the World of Diabetes Research?

Amy-Campbell_2 Today’s post comes from Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE. Campbell is a nationally-known dietitian, author, blogger and lecturer specializing in nutrition and diabetes management. As a certified diabetes educator, she was a diabetes educator and program manager at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, MA for over 19 years. She is a contributing author to Diabetes Self-Management and Walgreens’ Diabetes & You magazines, where she also serves on the editorial board, and writes a weekly blog for the Diabetes Self-Management website. In addition, she co-authored a book entitled 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet”, published by the American Diabetes Association, for which she received both the Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and the 2000 National Health Information Award. Campbell is a Health Professional Advisor for the Egg Nutrition Center, serves on the expert panel for US News’ “Best Diets,” is a Sharecare.com expert and has been an advisor for Calorie King, America’s leading provider of calorie-centric education tools and programs.

The landscape of diabetes research is constantly changing.  As a certified diabetes educator, I admit that I often have a hard time keeping up with the latest developments that are coming (or that have come) down the pipeline. The race for a diabetes cure is still going full throttle, but in the meantime, researchers are busy looking for other ways to treat a chronic condition that currently affects 29 million Americans and that could potentially affect another 86 million who are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

A Bionic Pancreas

It sounds so “new-agey,” but researchers at Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital have created and are currently testing a bionic pancreas for people with type 1 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin to survive. Most people with type 1 inject insulin anywhere from 2 to 4 times daily, or use an insulin pump to infuse insulin, and check their blood glucose up to 10 times (or more) every day. Obviously, this is a very labor-intensive disease. The bionic pancreas consists of a tiny sensor that’s inserted underneath the skin. This sensor monitors the level of glucose in the tissue and based on that level, can deliver insulin or glucagon via two automatic pumps.  In one instance, twenty adults wore the bionic pancreas and carried a wireless monitor for five days, doing and eating what they wanted, and following no particular schedule.  In another instance, 32 children wore the pancreas for five days while at a camp for children with type 1 diabetes.  The findings? There were 37 percent fewer interventions for hypoglycemia and more than a twofold reduction in time spent in hypoglycemia. Overall, blood glucose levels were significantly improved, particularly during the overnight hours1. The diabetes community is excited about this new technology, but it’s not yet ready for prime-time. The technology needs refining, and larger-scale clinical trials are necessary to show efficacy and safety before the bionic pancreas is suitable for home use.  Stay tuned!

Good Fat, Bad Fat, White Fat, Brown Fat

Chances are you don’t think too much about the type or color of the fat in your body. Well, maybe it’s time to give your fat a second look! When we think about fat, we generally think in terms of having too much of it and ways that we can reduce the amount. But researchers are looking at fat in a different light; specifically, they’re looking at the color of the fat in the body. White fat, which is the most abundant type of body fat, is found throughout the body, and it cushions and protects internal organs. Too much of it can raise the risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Brown fat, on the other hand, is packed with mitochondria, which produce energy for cells. This type of fat actually burns calories to generate heat. It’s found in just a few spots in the body: in the front and back of the neck, between the shoulders, and around the heart and kidneys. Scientists are trying to figure out how to expand the amount of brown fat in the body as a possible treatment for obesity. In addition, newer research shows that brown fat can increase the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream2. Harnessing the dual power of brown fat could prove to be a boon for those with type 2 diabetes, especially as 85 percent of those with type 2 are overweight or obese.

Creating Beta Cells from Stem Cells

We’ve heard a lot about stem cells over the past few years, and while it may seem like the hype has died down a bit, in the field of diabetes, stems cells are hot! A team at Harvard has figured out how to transform embryonic stem cells into beta cells, which are the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. These cells could then be injected into the pancreas to work their magic. The researchers have developed a method that converts the stem cells into beta cells within 30 days. When the new beta cells were injected into mice with diabetes, they went to work right away and essentially cured the mice’s diabetes within 10 days3. More research is needed, but this methodology will hopefully result in the same effect in humans.

Google’s Contact Lens

Google is more than just a search engine. Google scientists have forayed into the healthcare arena and are busy creating contact lenses that contain special sensors. These sensors can detect levels of glucose in tears. Currently, there are two ways that people with diabetes can monitor their blood glucose levels: with a blood glucose meter, which requires finger sticks, and with a continuous glucose monitor, which involves inserting a sensor underneath the skin that measures interstitial glucose. Both methods are invasive. Google has teamed up with Alcon, a division of Novartis, to develop the contact lenses which will contain a microchip and a low-powered circuit. Information about the glucose level in tears (which will be checked once a second), as well as warnings for impending hypoglycemia, will be sent to a mobile device4. Once again, stay tuned!



  1. Russell, SJ, El-Khatib FH, Sinha M et al. Outpatient glycemic control with a bionic pancreas in type 1 diabetes. N Engl J Med 2014; 371:313-325.
  1. Olsen JM, Sato M, Dallner OS. Glucose uptake in brown fat cells is dependent on mTOR complex2-promoted GLUT1 translocation. J Cell Biol 2014; 207:365-374.
  1. Pagliuca FW, Millman JR, Gurtler M et al. Generation of functional human pancreatic B cells in vitro. Cell 2014; 159:428-439.
  1. Otis B and Parvis B. (2014, January 16). Introducing our smart contact lens project. Accessed November 18, 2014 from http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/introducing-our-smart-contact-lens.html.
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