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Controlling insulin production with a smartwatch

A recent study suggests that smartwatches may have use in controlling insulin production through light-emitting diodes.

Smartwatches use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to monitor a range of physical health parameters, including heart rate, heart-rate variability, electrocardiograms, blood pressure, and sleep. Cells can be induced with continuous or pulsed green light. The green light emitted penetrates the skin and can be used to measure and record indicators of physical health through photoplethysmography.

Smartwatches can be used to measure the wearer’s heart rate at rest and during physical activity. According to research published in Nature Communications, the green-light-emitting functionality of smartwatches can potentially be used to control genes and production of therapeutic proteins. Researchers in Basel, Switzerland investigated whether LEDs could be used in the treatment of diabetes and associated symptoms.

Green-Light-Operated Watch (Glow) Control technology was used in the study

The researchers used Green-Light-Operated Watch (Glow) Control technology to visualise the effect of green-light illumination in various mammalian and human cell types. This was a challenging study since they had to design Glow-controlled mammalian cells. Dr Martin Fussenegger, a senior author of the paper, explained, “No naturally occurring molecular system in human cells responds to green light, so we had to build something new.”

The researchers found that Glow-controlled engineered human cells can effectively treat experimental type 2 diabetes and associated symptoms, including insulin resistance, fasting blood glucose levels, postprandial hyperglycemia, and obesity, in a mouse model.

This was achieved by controlled generation and release of human glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) in response to green-light illumination. GLP-1 is a gastrointestinal hormone involved in the production of insulin. The researchers were able to confirm that Glow Control provided robust, rapid, non-invasive, tunable, and reversible transgene expression when the cells were exposed to green light.

Dr Fussenegger clarified, “It’s the first time that an implant of this kind has been operated using commercially available, smart electronic devices – known as wearables because they are worn directly on the skin.”

How does the green light-regulated gene network work? 

The researchers were able to develop a molecular switch that was activated by green light from the smartwatch. The switch is linked to a gene network that can be activated or inactivated. Programmed green-light illumination is used to activate the cascade and produce insulin or other substances on demand. During the investigation, green light was switched on by starting the running app. When the light is turned off, the switch is inactivated and the process is halted. Since the researchers used standard smartwatch software, Dr Fussenegger explained that “Off-the-shelf watches offer a universal solution to flip the molecular switch.”

However, it is unlikely that that this revolutionary technology can be used clinically for at least another ten years. This is because the system needs to go through multiple clinical phases before it can be approved for the treatment of diabetes. Dr Fussenegger stated that, “To date, only very few cell therapies have been approved.”


Mansouri, M., et al. (2021). Smart-watch-programmed green-light-operated percutaneous control of therapeutic transgenes. Nature Communications, 12(3388), 1-10. Retrieved from:

Controlling insulin production with a smartwatch (2021). EurekAlert! Retrieved from:

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay 



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