Research is edging us closer to a cure for type 1 diabetes, with encapsulated insulin producing cells that could last for years – ending daily injections
Over 400,000 in the UK alone live with type 1 diabetes, and daily injections are far from a ‘cure’ for the condition. Although these have saved millions worldwide, they’re inaccurate in comparison to the body’s own finely tuned insulin producing cells. This leads to progressive damage and complications.
The wonders of cell therapy
In type 1, and some later stage type 2 diabetics, the body lacks capable insulin producing beta cells. These carefully release packets of insulin in response to fluctuating blood sugar levels, and keep your blood sugar in check. Harvesting beta cells from deceased donors has been attempted in the past, but they’re quickly attacked by the immune system and patients must take unpleasant immunosuppressant drugs alongside the treatment.
Scientists have now made progress in both creating beta cells from a patient’s own cells and developing an encapsulation system. This system shields the cells from immune attack and enables them to stick around for much longer.
Previous efforts have focused on using alginate capsules to hold the beta cells, as alginate allows sugar and nutrient flow but blocks immune contact. Although this was a great concept, the form of alginate initially proposed slowly elicits an immune response over time. Researchers have therefore been searching for a superior form of alginate that triggers less of a response. After testing over 700 varieties of the substance, the research team arrived at a form of alginate that immune cells barely notice.
Encapsulated cells could last for years
When beta cells produced from embryonic stem cells were encased in a capsule constructed of this new alginate, they performed almost exactly like ‘normal’ insulin producing cells would. Not only that, when they were removed after 6 months they were still functioning excellently, having evaded an immune rejection. This means this form of treatment could potentially last far longer, but it ill take human trials to properly establish the therapy.
“You can take stem cells and make a limitless supply of [human beta cells] and put them in a device and cure an entirely different species of animal. This is really the first demonstration of the ability of these novel materials in combination with a stem-cell derived beta cell to reverse diabetes in an animal model”