A novel type 2 diabetes drug has been developed that is activated by the presence of blue light and deactivated when the light source is turned off.

The new drug is a form of sulphonylurea, a class of drug which stimulates the pancreas to release more insulin. Sulphonylureas are effective at lowering blood sugar levels but, once they’ve been taken, the increased insulin production cannot be switched until the activity of the drug runs out, which can range from a few hours to up to a day. A result of this is that it can mean that the drugs can sometimes stimulate the production of too much insulin, leading to low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia).

The new drug has been developed through a collaboration by Imperial College London, in the UK, and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. When the medication is taken, it remains inactive until blue light is shone onto the skin. Crucially, if blood glucose levels begin to drop too low, the light source can be turned off to prevent further reduction in blood glucose levels.

Photoswitchable drugs

The unique method of activation, known as photoswitchable, will require extra kit for those taking the drug to ensure an effective blue light source is available. The researchers note that only a small amount of light would need to penetrate the skin for the drug to be activated. This means that the patient could wear LEDs on the surface of their skin which could be easily switched on and off as and when needed.

One of the research team, Professor Dirk Trauner of LMU Munich, is enthusiastic about the possibilities of light responsive medications: “Photoswitchable drugs and photopharmacology could be enormously useful for all sorts of diseases, by allowing remote control over specific body processes with light.”