Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) bombard our bodies through radio waves, X-rays, wireless internet, and cellular phones. While these energy fields are seemingly everywhere in our lives, not much is known about how they can directly impact human health – until now.

University of Iowa researchers have discovered a safe way to use electromagnetic energy fields to non-invasively manage blood sugar levels. Exposing diabetic mice to a combination of static electric and magnetic fields for a few hours daily normalizes glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes, according to their new findings published Oct. 6 in Cell Metabolism.

“The fields are enhancing the body's insulin response and how the body responds to insulin. How that happens is still quite a big mystery,” says Calvin Carter, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a postdoctoral research scholar in the lab of senior author Val Sheffield, MD, PhD, professor in the Stead Family Department of Pediatrics and the Carver Chair in Molecular Genetics. 

The big picture

UI researchers Calvin Carter, PhD, and Sunny Huang (pictured above) are part of the team that discovered electromagnetic fields can manage blood sugar levels in diabetic mice. If the findings hold up in people, they hope to introduce a new, wearable device to treat Type 2 diabetes. In this image, Huang displays a prototype of the device, while Carter holds copper coils that are used to generate EMFs.

“We're very interested in how the fields are affecting the processing of glucose," Carter says. "We know that the body is also processing glucose in the liver at a higher rate because of these fields.”

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This seminal work could have a major impact in diabetes care, particularly for patients whose current treatment plan is cumbersome and involves checking their blood sugar multiple times daily with finger sticks. Mismanaged diabetes over several years eventually impacts the body’s small blood vessels, leading to blindness, neuropathies, among other conditions.

“Current treatment regimens are not easy for patients to follow,” says Sunny Huang, co-lead author and an MD/PhD student interested in metabolism and diabetes. “If you talk to Type 2 diabetic patients, a lot of them will tell you that they try very hard to stick to the regimen. Drugs have side effects and may be easy to forget, especially for those who are busy and elderly. To make matters more challenging, after a few months to years, these medications may not work as well, requiring higher doses and a greater chance of side effects.”

This study indicates that EMFs alter the balance of oxidants and antioxidants in the liver, thus improving the body’s response to insulin.

"This is kind of a game changer as far as how we think about treating diabetes, in general,” says Huang. “I would say that most drugs currently on the market, especially for Type 2 diabetes, just treat the symptoms. Electromagnetic fields target the underlying cause of Type 2 diabetes: insulin resistance. In essence, the fields push the body closer to a normal state of signaling to restore how the body responds to insulin.”

'Something weird going on'

The initial finding was pure serendipity. Huang needed to practice taking blood from mice and measuring blood sugar levels. Carter offered to let her borrow some of the mice he was using to study the effect of EMFs on brain and behavior in the animals.

“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,” Huang says. “I told Calvin, ‘There's something weird going on here.’”

The finding that these mice had normal blood sugar levels after EMF exposure was doubly strange because the mice had a genetic modification which made them diabetic.

“That's what sparked this project,” Carter confirms. “Early on, we recognized that if the findings held up, they could have a major impact on diabetes care.”

The findings held up. Carter and Huang, working with Sheffield and UI diabetes expert E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, chair of the UI Department of Internal Medicine, found that the combined wireless application of static magnetic and electric fields modulates blood sugar in three different mouse models of Type 2 diabetes. The team also showed that exposure to such fields– approximately 100 times stronger than the Earth’s EMF–during sleep, reversed insulin resistance within three days of treatment.

EMFs and redox biology

EMFs are everywhere; telecommunications, navigation, and mobile devices all use them to function. EMFs are also used in medicine, in MRIs and EEGs, for example. However, very little is known about how they affect biology. On their hunt for clues to understand the biological mechanisms underlying the biological effects of EMFs on blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, Carter and Huang reviewed literature from the 1970s investigating the mechanisms underlying bird migration. They found that many animals sense the Earth's electromagnetic field and use it to orient themselves as well as for navigation.

This is kind of a game changer as far as how we think about treating diabetes in general. I would say that most drugs currently on the market, especially for Type 2 diabetes, just treat the symptoms. Electromagnetic fields target the underlying cause of Type 2 diabetes: insulin resistance. ”
Sunny Huang, MD/PhD student, co-lead author

“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 antenna, enabling a biological response to EMFs,” Carter says. “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 team collaborated with Douglas Spitz (84PhD) and Garry Buettner (76PhD), UI professors of radiation oncology, and Jason Hansen, PhD, from Brigham Young University, all internationally recognized experts in redox biology, to help probe the action of an oxidant molecule called superoxide, which is known to play a role in Type 2 diabetes.

Their 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,” Carter adds.

Aiming for human studies

In addition to the mouse studies, the researchers also treated human liver cells with EMFs for six hours and showed that a surrogate marker for insulin sensitivity improved significantly, suggesting that the EMFs may also produce the same anti-diabetic effect in humans.

Carter and Huang are energized by the possibility of translating the findings to human patients with Type 2 diabetes. In terms of safety, the World Health Organization considers low energy EMFs safe for human health. The UI study also found no evidence of any adverse side effects in mice.

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. Their goal is to move into clinical trials with patients to translate the technology into a new class of therapies. With that goal in mind, Carter, Huang, and Carter’s twin brother, Walter, have created a startup company called Geminii Health, with help from the UI Office for the Vice President of Research.

“Our dream is to create a new class of noninvasive medicines that remotely take control of cells to fight disease,” Carter says.

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 wells as colleagues from Vanderbilt University.

John Riehl was a contributing writer.