Durban — More than 37 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, 8.4 million Americans needed to take insulin in 2022 to lower their blood sugar. Insulin, however, is tricky to deliver into the body orally because it is a protein easily destroyed in the stomach.
While researchers are developing pills that resist digestion in the stomach and skin patches that monitor blood sugar and automatically release insulin, the most reliable way currently to take insulin is through frequent injections.
In a recent study in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, researchers engineered cells to release insulin in response to specific sound waves: the music of the band Queen. Though it still has a long way to go, this new system may one day replace the insulin injection with a dose of rock ’n’ roll.
Bioengineering professor Martin Fussenegger of ETH Zurich, a university in Basel, Switzerland, led a recent study that used a mechanosensitive ion channel as a remote control to signal cells to make insulin in response to specific sound waves.
These “MUSIC-controlled, insulin-releasing cells” – MUSIC is short for music-inducible cellular control – were cultured in the lab next to loudspeakers. His team tested a variety of musical genres of different intensities and speeds.
Among the songs they played were pop songs like Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California”; classical pieces such as Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and Mozart’s “Alla Turca”; and movie themes such as Soundgarden’s “Live To Rise,” which was featured in “The Avengers,” a Marvel film. They found that pop music heavy in low bass and movie soundtracks were better able to trigger insulin release compared with classical music, and cells were able to release insulin within minutes of exposure to the song.
In particular, they found that the Queen song “We Will Rock You” most faithfully mimicked the rate of insulin release in normal pancreatic beta cells.
The team then implanted the MUSIC-controlled, insulin-releasing cells into diabetic mice. Listening to the Queen song for 15 minutes once a day returned the amount of insulin in their blood to normal levels. Blood sugar levels returned to normal as well. In contrast, mice that were not exposed to the song remained hyperglycemic.
Could music make insulin in people?
Despite these promising results, much more research is needed before this musical approach to producing insulin can be considered for human use.
One concern is the possibility of making too much insulin, which can also cause health problems. Fussenegger’s study found that talking and background noise such as the racket made by airplanes, lawn mowers or firetrucks did not trigger the insulin production system in mice. The music also needed to be played close to the abdomen where the MUSIC-controlled, insulin-releasing cells were implanted.
Cellular engineering may one day provide a much-needed alternative to frequent injections of insulin for the millions of people with diabetes around the world.
In the future, different cell types could be engineered to release other drugs in the body more conveniently.
Sullivan is Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology, Indiana University
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