Can the music of Queen help diabetics produce insulin? Science says yes

Science and Health

It sounds like just another piece of fake news from social media, but in fact it has just been published by Swiss researchers in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet

To produce and administer insulin implanted in the body of diabetics instead of via insulin injections, Prof. Martin Fussenegger from the biosystems science and engineering department at ETH Zurich in Basel and colleagues are working to enclose insulin-producing designer cells in capsules that can be implanted in the body. To be able to control from the outside when and how much insulin the cells release into the blood, researchers have studied and applied different triggers in recent years –light, temperature, and electric fields.

They have now developed another novel stimulation method using music to trigger the cells to release insulin within minutes. Fussenegger says this works especially well with “We Will Rock You,” a global hit by British rock band, Queen.

We are the champions: How Queen can help the body produce insulin

The clinical application, however, is still a long way off. The researchers have just provided a proof of concept, showing that genetic networks can be controlled by mechanical stimuli such as sound waves. Whether this principle will ever be put to practical use depends on whether a pharmaceutical company is interested in doing so. It could, after all, be applied broadly – the system works not only with insulin, but with any protein that lends itself to therapeutic use.

In diabetes, the body produces too little or no insulin. Diabetics thus depend on an external supply of this hormone via regular injections or an insulin pump attached to the body. Researchers led by want to make the lives of these people easier and are looking for solutions.

The statue of Queen singer Freddie Mercury is pictured near the lake Leman in Montreux, Switzerland, June 30, 2016 (credit: REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE)

To make the insulin-producing cells receptive to sound waves, the researchers used a protein from the bacterium E. coli. Such proteins respond to mechanical stimuli and are common in animals and bacteria. Located in the membrane of the bacterium, it regulates the influx of calcium ions into the cell interior. The researchers have incorporated the blueprint of this bacterial ion channel into human insulin-producing cells, making it possible for these cells to create the ion channel themselves and embed it in their membrane.

The team published findings under the title “Tuning of cellular insulin release by music for real-time diabetes control” in the ”Correspondence” section of the journal. They wrote that the channel in these cells opens in response to sound, allowing positively charged calcium ions to flow into the cell. This leads to a charge reversal in the cell membrane, which in turn causes the tiny insulin-filled vesicles inside the cell to fuse with the cell membrane and release the insulin to the outside.

In cell cultures, the researchers first determined which frequencies and volume levels activated the ion channels most strongly. They found that volume levels of around 60 decibels (dB) and bass frequencies of 50 hertz were the most effective in triggering the ion channels. To trigger maximum insulin release, the sound or the music had to continue for a minimum of three seconds and pause for a maximum of five seconds. If the intervals were too far apart, substantially less insulin was released.

Finally, the researchers looked into which music genres caused the strongest insulin response at a volume of 85 dB. Rock music with booming bass like the song “We Will Rock You” came out on top, followed by the soundtrack to the action movie The Avengers. The insulin response to classical music and guitar music was rather weak by comparison.

“We Will Rock You” triggered about 70% of the insulin response within five minutes and all of it within 15 minutes. This is comparable to the natural glucose-induced insulin response of healthy individuals, Fussenegger said. 

To test the system as a whole, they implanted the insulin-producing cells into mice and placed the animals so that their bellies were directly on the loudspeaker. This was the only way the researchers could observe an insulin response. If, however, the animals were able to move freely in a “mouse disco,” the music failed to trigger insulin release.

“Our designer cells release insulin only when the sound source with the right sound is played directly on the skin above the implant,” Fussenegger noted. The release of the hormone was not triggered by ambient noise such as conversations, ambulance sirens, lawnmowers or fire brigade sirens. He thinks that there is little risk that the implanted cells in humans would release insulin constantly and at the slightest noise.

Insulin depots require four hours to fully replenish after they have been depleted, so even if the cells were exposed to sound at hourly intervals, they would not be able to release a full load of insulin each time and cause life-threatening hypoglycemia (low sugar). “It could, however, cover the typical needs of a diabetes patient who eats three meals a day,” Fussenegger added. Insulin remains in the vesicles for a long time, even if a person doesn’t eat for more than four hours. “There’s no depletion or unintentional discharge taking place.”