Capsule offers hope to diabetes sufferers

A revolutionary treatment for gout could result in a new form of therapy for a range of other medical conditions – such as diabetes and obesity – caused by an imbalance of the body's normal metabolism.

The treatment consists of implanting a small plastic capsule under the skin which is loaded with genetically engineered cells taken from the patients themselves. The capsule effectively works as a synthetic organ balancing the body's chemicals and hormones.

Tests on laboratory mice have shown the technique can successfully treat the symptoms of gout, caused by a painful build up of salt crystals in the kidneys and joints. Human clinical trials could begin in two years, scientists reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The researchers hope to adapt the technique so that the genetically engineered human cells living in the plastic capsules can be programmed to deal with a range of other metabolic disorders, such as the hormonal imbalances leading to diabetes and obesity.

Gout, which affects more than 1 per cent of the population, is caused by a build up of uric acid in the bloodstream which results in crystals of uric acid being deposited in the kidneys and joints, leading to bouts of extreme pain. Famous sufferers are said to have included Alexander the Great, Henry VIII, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin.

Professor Martin Fussenegger of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has designed a "molecular prosthesis" to treat gout which is made from human cells designed to detect an increase in levels of uric acid and to respond by secreting an enzyme called urate oxydase, which destroys uric acid.

"We have constructed a synthetic genetic circuitry that can detect uric acid in the bloodstream and process this information to produce a therapeutic response," Professor Fussenegger said.

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