San Francisco Bay Area resident Patrick Totty writes about his experiences living with type 2 diabetesSee all posts »
Little Machines of Loving Grace
In 1967 Richard Brautigan wrote a poem about a paradise where humans who had forgotten how to be responsible adults were protected from their ignorance by “machines of loving grace.” While I never liked the poem for imagining a post-industrial Eden as a sort of glorified nursery, I did like the “machines of loving grace” line.
It turns out that there may yet be machines of loving grace that will look over us, especially when it comes to combating disease. Only the machines in this instance are so small that the naked eye can barely see them. They are called nanobots, tiny, very simple machines small enough to be injected into the bloodstream, and “smart” enough to be programmed to perform specific tasks.
(“Nano”—minute or extremely small—is derived from the Greek word nannos, which means “little old man” or “dwarf.” Because the particles and machines being developed by nanotechnology are so miniscule, the prefix makes sense.)
Cancer researchers are already experimenting with nanobots to deliver fatal doses of medicine to tumors, bypassing healthy cells entirely to deliver deadly cargos solely to cancerous cells.
Nanotechnology holds out several promising approaches to treating diabetes:
- Creating specially coated nano particles that can carry delicate insulin molecules safely through the acid bath of the digestive system and deliver them directly to the bloodstream. If so, diabetics could say goodbye to needle injections and take their insulin orally.
- Nano “tattoos,” clusters of tiny glucose sensing devices located under the skin of the forearm that give blood sugar readings when an optical reader is focused on them. The technology would do away with the need to sample blood by pricking the skin—usually fingertips—to draw a blood sample.
- Beyond sensors, some scientists believe it may be possible to implant nano pumps in the body that would regulate blood glucose levels. Such a technology would do away with the need for external pumps and meters, freeing people with diabetes from cumbersome medical aids.
- At the far edge of nanotechnology could be the introduction of nanobots programmed to protect insulin producing pancreatic beta cells from mistaken attack by the autoimmune system in people with type 1 diabetes.
These nano technologies are still at the experimental stage. Nanobot-based subcutaneous glucose sensing devices most likely would be the first to hit market. As more exotic nano diabetes therapies become available, look for a push by health consumers to allow scientists to move more quickly from animal to human testing than is now permitted. With so many people developing diabetes, there will be no end of volunteers willing to risk undergoing experimental therapies if those therapies hold out exceptional promise.