Patients with Type I diabetes have a poorly functioning pancreas that doesn’t produce enough, or any, insulin to metabolize blood glucose. Constant and regular injections are a norm for millions suffering from the disease. But now researchers at Cornell University, working with others from Novo Nordisk and University of Michigan Medical School, have developed an implantable device that harbors live stem cell-derived pancreatic cell clusters, known as islets, that are able to generate insulin much like a healthy pancreas.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it describes how the team was able to encapsulate hundreds of thousands of islet cells within a hydrogel and bind them to a polymer thread. The islets, not being a part of a proper organ, do have a lifetime after which they’re no longer useful. They can also lead to tumor formation, a real possibility. Being part of a thread allows them to be fairly easily removed and replaced as necessary, at least according to the researchers.
The islet cells are coated by the hydrogel in order to prevent the immune system from attacking them. The ionized calcium-releasing polymer thread that provides the structure has nano-sized holes in order to facilitate the hydrogel containing the living cells to adhere to it. The thread is completely surrounded by the hydrogel, closing any gaps that can lead to the formation of scar tissue.
The technology has already been tried in mice and dogs. In mice, it was tested for glucose control, demonstrating the ability to get it to normal levels in diabetic mice within only two days. The thread is expected to be useful for many months, potentially up to two years. In dogs, the thread was implanted to see how easy it is to remove it, and the research has shown that it typically doesn’t adhere to nearby tissues, making it easy to be extracted.
There’s of course more work to be done, particularly initial testing in humans and larger studies, but the technology looks incredibly promising and exciting for patients and clinicians.