In patients with diabetes, the immune system attacks the pancreas, eventually leaving patients without the ability to naturally control blood sugar. These patients must carefully monitor the amount of sugar in their blood, and then inject themselves with insulin to keep their blood sugar levels within a healthy range. However, precise control of blood sugar is difficult to achieve with patients facing a range of long-term medical problems as a result. Now, a study from researchers at MIT develops a ‘living drug factory’, an implantable, long-term insulin-producing device that may one day make injections obsolete. The team states their living drug factories, made of encapsulated engineered cells, can be safely implanted in the body to produce insulin over the course of months or even years. The archive of studies is published in Nature Materials, Nature Biotechnology, Nature Materials, and Nature Medicine.
Past studies from the group have investigated new technological approaches toward islet cell transplantation to develop commercially viable cell-encapsulation technology for diabetes. The main issue was in identifying the right material to protect cells, with the ability to also make them invisible to the immune system. The current study develops a material encapsulating human islet cells shown to cure diabetes for up to six months, without provoking an immune response after transplantation.
The current study chemically modifies alginate, a polysaccharide lining the cell walls of brown algae, into becoming a gel safely encapsulating cells without limiting function. Results show molecules containing a triazole group the lab attached to the alginate’s polymer chain ensures the coating didn’t cause an immune response.
The group states the pancreatic islet cells used in the study were generated from human stem cells. Data findings show following implantation, the cells immediately began producing insulin in response to blood sugar levels and were able to keep blood sugar under control for the length of the study. Results show the cells can sense glucose and secrete insulin in a controlled manner, alleviating the mice’s need for injected insulin. The lab also manufactured 1.5-millimeter diameter capsules implanted into the intraperitoneal space of nonhuman primates for at least six months without scar tissue building up.
The team surmises they have developed a living drug factory based on a hydrogel capable of controlling insulin levels for 6 months in primates. For the future, the researchers state they are working on various other applications, including ‘sense and respond’ therapies, where cells sense biological signals and respond with the precise dosage of a target therapeutic.
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