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Electromagnetic fields could treat diabetes
IOWA CITY, Iowa.—Researchers from the University of Iowa (UI) may have discovered a safe, non-invasive new way to manage blood sugar. According to new findings published today in Cell Metabolism, exposing diabetic mice to a combination of static electric and magnetic fields for a few hours per day can normalize two major hallmarks of type 2 diabetes.
“Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) for relatively short periods reduces blood sugar and normalizes the body’s response to insulin,” stated Calvin Carter, Ph.D., one of the study’s lead authors and a postdoc in the lab of senior author Val Sheffield, M.D., Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, and professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the UI Carver College of Medicine. “The effects are long-lasting, opening the possibility of an EMF therapy that can be applied during sleep to manage diabetes all day.”
The surprising discovery could have major implications on diabetes care. The new study indicates that EMFs alter the balance of oxidants and antioxidants in the liver, improving the body’s response to insulin. This effect is mediated by small reactive molecules that seem to function as “magnetic antennae.”
The initial finding was a happy accident. Sunny Huang, who is Carter’s co-lead author and an M.D./Ph.D. student interested in metabolism and diabetes, needed to practice taking blood from mice and measuring blood sugar levels. Carter let her borrow some of the mice he was using to study the effect of EMFs on brain and behavior.
“It was really odd because normally these animals have high blood sugar and type 2 diabetes, but all of the animals exposed to EMFs showed normal blood sugar levels,” explained Huang. “I told Calvin, ‘There's something weird going on here.’”
The finding that these mice had normal blood sugar levels after EMF exposure was strange, because the mice were genetically modified to be diabetic.
“That's what sparked this project. Early on, we recognized that if the findings held up, they could have a major impact on diabetes care,” noted Carter.
Carter and Huang worked with Sheffield and UI diabetes expert Dale Abel, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the UI Department of Internal Medicine. The team found that the combined wireless application of static magnetic and electric fields modulates blood sugar in three different mouse models of type 2 diabetes. They also showed that exposure to such fields during sleep reversed insulin resistance within three days of treatment.
EMFs are everywhere: telecommunications, navigation and mobile devices all use them to function. EMFs are also used in medicine, in technologies like MRIs and EEGs. But very little is known about how they affect biology. In terms of safety, the World Health Organization considers low energy EMFs safe for human health, and the UI study found no evidence of any adverse side effects in mice.
On their hunt for clues to understand the mechanisms behind the biological effects of EMFs on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, Carter and Huang reviewed literature from the 1970s investigating bird migration. They found that many animals sense the Earth’s electromagnetic field and use it for orientation and navigation.
“This literature pointed to a quantum biological phenomenon whereby EMFs may interact with specific molecules. There are molecules in our bodies that are thought to act like tiny magnetic antennae, enabling a biological response to EMFs,” Carter added. “Some of these molecules are oxidants, which are studied in redox biology, an area of research that deals with the behavior of electrons and reactive molecules that govern cellular metabolism.”
The research team collaborated with Douglas Spitz, Ph.D., and Gary Buettner, Ph.D., UI professors of radiation oncology; and Jason Hansen, Ph.D., from Brigham Young University. All three are internationally recognized experts in redox biology, and they helped to probe the action of an oxidant molecule called superoxide, which is known to play a role in type 2 diabetes.
The multidisciplinary research team also included scientists from the UI Departments of Radiology, Neuroscience and Pharmacology; Molecular Physiology and Biophysics; and Physics and Astronomy, as well as colleagues from Vanderbilt University.
The experiments suggest that EMFs alter the signaling of superoxide molecules, specifically in the liver — which leads to the prolonged activation of an antioxidant response to rebalance the body’s redox set point and the response to insulin.
“When we remove superoxide molecules from the liver, we completely block the effect of the EMFs on blood sugar and on the insulin response. The evidence suggests that superoxide plays an important role in this process,” stated Carter.
Additionally, the researchers treated human liver cells with EMFs for six hours and showed that a surrogate marker for insulin sensitivity improved significantly. This suggests that the EMFs could also produce the same anti-diabetic effect in humans.
Carter and Huang are excited by the possibility of translating the findings to human patients with type 2 diabetes. The team is now working on a larger animal model to see if the EMFs produce similar effects in an animal that has a more similar size and physiology to humans. They also plan to conduct studies to understand the redox mechanism underlying the effects of EMFs, and ultimately plan to move into clinical trials with patients to translate the technology into a new class of therapies.
“Our dream is to create a new class of non-invasive medicines that remotely take control of cells to fight disease,” Carter concluded.