Patients with type 1 diabetes lack the ability to prodice the insulin required to regulate blood glucose levels. They require external insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. Many patients use insulin pumps that require a reliable energy supply, currently met by either single-use or rechargeable batteries. Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed an implantable fuel cell that generates electrical energy using excess glucose in patient’s own body. 

The device contains copper-based nanoparticles that break down glucose into gluconic acid and protons to generate electricity. The cell is wrapped in alginate-coated nonwoven fabric (a bio-compatible material), creating a small teabag-like implant that can be placed under the skin. This allows glucose to enter the fuel cell through the alginate coating, which also absorbs body fluids.

In the next step, researchers combined the fuel cell with a capsule containing artificial beta cells to generate power and deliver insulin. The fuel cell registers excess glucose and generates power that then stimulates the cells to produce insulin, bringing down blood sugar to normal levels. The system can communicate with external devices such as smartphones, enabling adjustments through a corresponding app. As a result, it autonomously regulates insulin and blood glucose levels.

The current system is in its prototype stage and while it has been proven effective in mice, the researchers have not yet been able to develop it into a viable commercial product. Given time, the tech could prove great for people with type 1 diabetes.