The drug would be inactive under normal conditions but a patient could in theory switch it on using blue LEDs (light emitting diodes) attached to the skin.

Only a small amount of light would need to penetrate the skin to change the drug's shape and turn it on.

This change is reversible so the drug switches off again when the light goes off.

"Diabetes drugs that promote the release of insulin from the pancreas can in some cases cause side effects due to their actions on other organs such as the brain and heart. Some can also stimulate too much insulin release, causing blood sugar levels to drop too low," explained David Hodson from the Imperial College London.

To help create better drugs, researchers at the Imperial College London and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich adapted an existing type of drug called a sulfonylurea so that it changes shape when exposed to blue light.

They demonstrated that the prototype drug, known as JB253, stimulates insulin release from pancreatic cells in the lab when exposed to blue light.

"In principle, this type of therapy may allow better control over blood sugar levels because it can be switched on for a short time when required after a meal. It should also reduce complications by targeting drug activity to where it's needed in the pancreas," Hodson informed.

"So far, we have created a molecule that has the desired effect on human pancreatic cells in the lab. Our ultimate goal is to make this therapy available to patients soon," he noted.

Type 2 diabetes affects around 350 million people worldwide.  

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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