• Human pancreas cells were genetically engineered to harbor vibration-sensitive proteins that activate insulin release in response to music. 
  • The highest levels of insulin release from music occur with the song “We Will Rock You” by Queen. 
  • Treating diabetes mice with capsules of engineered cells lowers their blood sugar levels, suggesting a potential novel diabetes therapy. 

It is estimated that 1 in 5 adults in the United States are unaware they have diabetes, one of the top ten leading causes of death. Furthermore, diabetes is the number one cause of kidney failure, lower-limb amputations, and adult blindness. With diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or respond to it well, leaving high levels of sugar in the blood. Therefore, different methods of insulin therapy may benefit diabetes patients.  

Now, researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland show in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology that human pancreas cells can be genetically engineered to harbor vibration-activated proteins. Zhao and colleagues also show that these cells release insulin in response to different popular songs. Furthermore, treating diabetic mice with the capsule form of these cells reduces their blood sugar levels, potentially countering the ill effects of diabetes.  

A Music-Activated Designer Drug for Diabetes 

Within the membranes of our cells are proteins called ion channels, necessary for us to think and move. These proteins allow the rapid entry and exit of ions — charged atoms also called electrolytes (Na+, K+, Cl, Ca2+, and Mg2+) — into and out of our cells. Some ion channels open in response to vibrations, including music. 

To engineer music-activated cells, Zhao and colleagues first grew human pancreas cells in a dish. They then introduced three circular DNA molecules called plasmids into the pancreas cells. One group of plasmids contained the gene for insulin and another contained the gene for a vibration-sensitive ion channel. The third group of plasmids contained a gene that allows the insulin and ion channel genes to be integrated into the DNA of the lab-grown pancreas cells. 

These genetically engineered pancreas cells likely work by the vibration-sensitive ion channel opening in response to music. The vibrations from the music contort and deform the cell membrane to open the channel. When the channel opens, it allows calcium ions (Ca2+) to enter the cell, leading to the secretion of insulin. 

(Zhao et al., 2023 | Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol) Music-Activated Insulin Secretion. In the absence of music (left), vibration-sensitive ion channels (Mechanosensitive channels) are closed and no insulin is secreted. When music is played (right), the channel opens and allows for Ca2+ to enter the cell and activate the release of insulin.

To validate the effectiveness of their newly developed pancreas cells, Zhao and colleagues placed small speakers underneath the cells and played different types of music. They found that aside from a frequency of 50 Hz, songs like “We Will Rock You” by Queen and music from The Avengers significantly stimulated the release of insulin. 

(Zhao et al., 2023 | Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol) Insulin Secretion in Response to Different Songs. Aside from a frequency of 50 Hz (red), different songs (blue) like Hotel California, We Will Rock You, and music from The Avengers also activated insulin release.

After finding that their genetically engineered pancreas cells could release insulin in response to music, Zhao and colleagues tested them in a mouse model for type I diabetes. To do this they encapsulated the cells in a durable type of carbohydrate called alginate, which is purified from algae. Alginate-based encapsulation technology is approved by the FDA and does not elicit an immune response. 

The researchers implanted capsules of music-activated pancreas cells into the diabetes mice, placed the mice onto speakers, and played “We Will Rock You.” In response to this internationally recognized song, the elevated blood sugar levels of the diabetic mice decreased as blood insulin levels increased. These findings suggest that music-activated pancreas cells can reduce blood sugar levels and treat diabetes. 

(Zhao et al., 2023 | Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol) Music Reduces Elevated Blood Sugar and Increases Insulin in Diabetic Mice.  Compared to diabetic mice without engineered cells (purple) and diabetic mice treated with engineered cells but not exposed to music (blue), diabetic mice treated with engineered cells and exposed to music (green, shown in G) have lower blood sugar (E) and higher insulin (F) levels after 90 and 120 minutes.

Furthermore, the Swiss researchers found that the engineered pancreas cells, being fully alive and functional, could generate more insulin within hours. The authors say,

“With only 4 hours required for a full refill, [the engineered cells] can provide several therapeutic doses [of insulin] a day. This would match the typical needs of people with type 2 diabetes consuming three meals a day.”

In reference to the results gleaned from the diabetic mice, the authors conclude: 

“This finding, combined with the safety feature offered by the refill period, suggests that therapeutic cell implants exposed to specific music and releasing crucial biopharmaceuticals in response could be an interesting option for cell-based therapies, especially where the need for frequent dosing raises compliance issues.”

How Practical Is a Music-Activated Drug?

Some may be wondering how practical a music-activated drug could be. The principal investigator Dr. Martin Fussenegger explains the sensitivity of the implanted cells: 

“Our designer cells release insulin only when the sound source with the right sound is played directly on the skin above the implant,” Fussenegger explains. The release of the hormone was not triggered by ambient noise such as aircraft noise, lawnmowers, fire brigade sirens or conversations.

This means that specific music — with a lot of bass like “We Will Rock You” — must be played directly over the implant to work. While the authors mention that this music-activated therapy could improve compliance, some may find it easier to swallow a pill than place a speaker over their skin and play music. Thus, while the concept of music-activated medicine is interesting, we may not see it in the clinic in the near future.

Furthermore, type 2 diabetes can be treated with diet and exercise, and insulin therapy may not be necessary. The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity like walking briskly, doing housework, or swimming to combat diabetes. Blood sugar levels can be controlled by avoiding highly processed foods, especially those with added sugars. Starchy vegetables and refined grains like rice, pasta, and bread should be eaten with sufficient protein and non-starchy vegetables or spices to slow down their breakdown into sugar.