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New ultrasound therapy aims for drug-free diabetes treatment
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New ultrasound therapy aims for drug-free diabetes treatment

Stimulating nerves with short bursts of ultrasound can reduce blood sugar, scientists find in animal trials.
Scientist pose in front of ultrasound machine
(Left to Right) GE Research’s Victoria Cotero, Jeffrey Ashe and Christopher Puleo with a prototype of the ultrasound modulation device | Photo Credit: General Electric

More than a hundred years after its discovery, insulin — along with drugs — is still the most common way of treating the over half a billion people who suffer from type 2 diabetes globally. Now, new research has raised the possibility of managing and controlling the condition without the use of any drugs. 

A consortium led by GE Research, the research and development arm of General Electric, has demonstrated in pre-clinical trials the use of short bursts of ultrasound to stimulate specific nerve clusters in the liver to prevent and reverse diabetes. 

The team — which includes researchers from the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, Yale School of Medicine, and Albany Medical College — reported its findings recently in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. 

“We have shown that ultrasound can be used to prevent or reverse diabetes in these preclinical studies. We’re now in the midst of human feasibility trials with a group of type-2 diabetic subjects, which begins our work toward clinical translation,” said Christopher Puleo, senior biomedical engineer at GE Research who co-led the study. 

The teams performed the studies on mice, rats and swine in the pre-clinical stages, demonstrating a novel technology called ‘peripheral focused ultrasound stimulation’ that is non-invasive. It works by targeting ultrasound pulses at specific tissues containing nerve endings, which in the trials showed to reduce glucose levels in the test subjects. 

In type 2 diabetes, an individual’s body stops listening to the insulin signal, which leads to high blood sugar levels as cells do not take up the glucose in the bloodstream. The experimental therapy targets neural signalling pathways responsible for regulating glucose uptake, the researchers explained in the paper. 

So far, it has been a six-year-long project within GE Research to develop ultrasound-based biomedical medical devices, which was expanded through a project funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and followed by work at the partner institutes to investigate specific aspects of the novel treatment. 

“There are no long-lasting clinical treatments in tackling diabetes. This exciting research is a major step forward to harness a novel approach of using ultrasound stimulation and bioelectronic medicine to alleviate and potentially reverse a disease that affects millions worldwide,” said Sangeeta Chavan, one of the senior authors of the paper and a professor at the Institute of Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes. 

Other authors said that there are very few drugs available today that can improve insulin sensitivity in diabetes, with the research raising the promise of developing new treatments to use ultrasound to lower insulin and blood glucose levels, which can supplement the current treatment options available. 

In the published study, the researchers found that just three minutes of focused ultrasound each day was enough to maintain normal blood glucose levels in the diabetic animals. The goal of the study was to identify and alter activity of nerves that are responsible for sensing of the amount of glucose available in the body. 

“Usually, we think of glucose metabolism as being regulated predominantly by hormones, of which the most important is insulin,” said Raimund Herzog, assistant professor of endocrinology at the Yale School of Medicine and one of the researchers that was part of the study told Yale Daily News. 

“Over the last couple of years, it has become clear that the nervous system also plays a role in regulating glucose metabolism. In fact, the hypothalamus has emerged as one of the main regulating centres for glucose metabolism,” Herzog said. 

The researchers said they will now begin clinical trials on humans suffering from diabetes, investigating into whether the success they saw in reversing the onset of hyperglycemia in the three animal models can be replicated. 

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