Nanotechnology for Diabetes Treatment

Topics Covered

About Diabetes
Applications of Nanotechnology for Diabetes Management
    Oral Insulin
    Monitoring Glucose Levels
Potential Long-Term Treatments or Cures for Diabetes
    Nanoporous Immunoisolation Devices
    Artificial Pancreas

About Diabetes

Diabetes (diabetes mellitus) is a metabolic disorder which results in high levels of blood glucose. It can be classified as either Type 1 or Type 2, depending on the reason for the high glucose levels. Type 1 diabetes means that the pancreas cannot produce insulin (a hormone which enables the uptake of glucose by the liver, muscle and fat tissue), whereas Type 2 means that the body's cells do not respond to the presence of insulin.

Whilst Type 1 diabetes can be fatal if untreated, most patients today survive into old age - however, they must inject insulin several times a day to allow their body to use the glucose from their food.

Our understanding and ability to treat insulin has been improving steadily, ever since the first insulin injections were carried out in the early 1920s by Banting and Best. Despite all the advances which have been made, insulin cannot be cured altogether, and a good deal of research effort is aimed at improving quality of life for diabetic patients, making their glucose tests and insulin injections as easy and non-invasive as possible, and potentially devising a permanent cure for diabetes.

Figure 1. A sample of insulin for treatment of Type 1 diabetes. Image credit:


Nanotechnology holds a great deal of promise for the world of medicine. It is likely that some of the first truly revolutionary changes noticeable in our everyday lives will be brought about by nanomedicine.

the possibilities of nanomedicine include nanoformulations for efficient drug delivery, smart drugs which only activate when needed, engineered microbes which produce human hormones, and even "nanorobots", which would move autonomously around the body acting as a boost, or a replacement, for our immune system, red blood cells, or many other biological systems.

Whilst many of these applications of nanotechnology as a long way off, there is a great deal of active research into medical technology - much of which is is not very far-fetched. This article explores the way in which nanotechnology could be used to effectively treat, and possibly cure, diabetes - in particular Type 1 diabetes.

Applications of Nanotechnology for Diabetes Management

Oral Insulin

Insulin for Type 1 diabetes is currently delivered by injection, as orally administered insulin has limited effectiveness. It is denatured by the acidity of the stomach, and its large size means it is absorbed slowly, which means it can even be partially digested by enzymes in the intestine before it can be absorbed into the body.

It has been found that nanoparticles of chitosan (a derivative of chitin, a natural structural polymer found in crustaceans and fungi), can be used as a carrier for oral insulin. It protects the insulin from digestive juices, and allows the insulin to be absorbed into the bloodstream much more effectively.

Chitosan nanoparticles are cheap and easy to produce, and completely biocompatible, so this technology should be realized on a fairly short timescale.

Monitoring Glucose Levels

Current methods of blood glucose monitoring are invasive and often painful. The finger-prick test has been associated with non-adherence to treatment regimes by diabetic patients because of this, but it also has very limited accuracy - it cannot be performed during other activities, such as driving, or sleeping, and its intermittent nature means that it can miss important and potentially dangerous spikes and fluctuations in blood glucose levels in between tests.

Several improved methods for non-invasive, continuous monitoring of blood glucose have been proposed in the last few years. Many of these take advantage of the advances in medical technology made possible by nanotechnology.

Nanosensors could use carbon nanotube electrodes to selectively measure glucose concentrations. Functionalization or the nanotubes would allow the presence of glucose to alter the current flowing down the conductive nanotubes. This data could then be fed to an embedded microchip, which could send the data wirelessly to a wearable computer.

This would allow accurate, continuous monitoring of blood glucose levels. However, there may be issues with ensuring the biocompatibility of the sensors, as they would need to remain implanted in the body for a long period of time.

One of the most promising near-term technologies is a "smart tattoo", which would contain polymer nanoparticles coated with molecules which fluoresce when glucose drops to dangerous levels, creating a visible glow in the skin. Whilst this is clearly not a complete monitoring solution, it would be helpful in identifying danger between tests.

Figure 2. The "pin-prick" glucose test could be replaced with more accurate and convenient methods using nanotechnology. Image credit:

Potential Long-Term Treatments or Cures for Diabetes

Nanoporous Immunoisolation Devices

Pancreas transplants, which could potentially cure Type 1 diabetes, are extremely risky procedures. Even a partial transplant, targeting only the Islets of Langerhans cells which produce insulin, result in a massive immune response, rejecting the new organ. The amount of immunosuppressant drugs required to prevent rejection is unsafe, and may actually damage the islets of Langerhans cells themselves.

One potential solution to this is to provide a "safe harbour", where transplanted pancreas cells are unaffected by the immune system whilst remaining productive. This could be achieved by using a porous container made of silica, or some other inert material. If the pore size of the material was around 20 nm, human or animal islets of Langerhans cells within would remain accessible to smaller molecules such as glucose and insulin, but white blood cells and other immune system components would be unable to access them, therefore preventing rejection.

Artificial Pancreas

The artificial pancreas is a machine which would monitor blood glucose levels using an array of sensors, and release insulin from a reservoir into the bloodstream, using an infusion pump, whenever it is required. The concept has been around for some time - the first proposal for an artificial pancreas was made in 1974.

With the technology at that time, and even the technology available currently, however, the size of such a device would make it impractical for permanent use.

The advances made possible by nanotechnology could change this - simple nanomachines which respond directly to glucose concentration to release insulin as it is needed, without the need for a controlling computer unit, could potentially act as a one-time treatment which would remove all symptoms of diabetes permanently.


In the long run, nanotechnology will clearly open up many routes to treatments and cures for diabetes, as it will for many of the diseases and conditions that currently plague mankind. Whilst some of these technologies are quite far-fetched, there is evidence that we will see significant advances in the treatment and management of diabetes quite soon.


  • "Nanotechnology and Diabetes", K. Martinac and Ž. Metelko, Diabetologia Croatica, 2005
  • "Applications of Nanotechnology in Diabetes", Arya et al, Digest Journal of Nanomaterials and Biostructures, 2008
  • "Recent Trends in Diabetes Treatment Using Nanotechnology", Subramani et al, Digest Journal of Nanomaterials and Biostructures, 2012
  • "Nanotechnology and the Future of Diabetes Management", Meetoo and Lappin, Journal of Diabetes Nursing, 2009
Will Soutter

Written by

Will Soutter

Will has a B.Sc. in Chemistry from the University of Durham, and a M.Sc. in Green Chemistry from the University of York. Naturally, Will is our resident Chemistry expert but, a love of science and the internet makes Will the all-rounder of the team. In his spare time Will likes to play the drums, cook and brew cider.


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