Recently, three JDRF-funded scientists joined forces to develop a potential encapsulated islet cell therapy for the treatment of type 1 diabetes (T1D).

A stealth material surface

Collaboration among experts with different specialties can speed up research progress by uniting the brightest minds in pursuit of a common goal. Research newly-published in Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine, showcased the success of the combined work of three prominent researchers:

  • The chemical engineer, Daniel Anderson, Ph.D.
  • The biomaterial engineer, Robert Langer, Sc.D.
  • The cell biologist, Douglas Melton, Ph.D.

A multidisciplinary approach can provide the focus, perspective and insight that make research objectives attainable. By facilitating collaborations among experts in different fields, JDRF is pushing the pace of science to develop promising therapies more quickly.

Integrating Drs Anderson and Langer’s novel encapsulation material with Dr Melton’s islet cells developed from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) enabled the creation of a prototype therapy capable of normalising blood glucose in mice for up to six months.

If the therapy performs as well in large animal studies, the researchers hope to carry out human clinical trials and eventually translate it into a therapeutic strategy for blood-glucose management in people with T1D, eliminating the need for daily injections.

A focus on encapsulation

Encapsulated cell therapies could potentially eliminate the need for daily injections, taking the burden out of managing T1D for months, and even years, at a time. This is why progress in this area is so exciting.

In the approach under development by Drs Anderson, Langer and Melton, islet cells produced from hESCs are encased in specially modified alginate capsules that shield them from immune attack when placed in the body. Dr Melton’s method for deriving pancreatic islets from hESCs created a plentiful supply of islet cells for therapeutic use. The alginate then protects the cells from immune attack without hindering their function, but it prompts a biological reaction that eventually renders the capsules ineffective. Drs Anderson and Langer have been carefully adapting the alginate material to improve its tissue compatibility.

As reported in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers created and tested nearly 800 alginate derivatives to find the most biocompatible option. The results published in Nature Medicine show the implanted cells immediately began producing insulin and maintained healthy blood-glucose levels until they were removed six months later.

This research represents progress toward designing successful encapsulated islet cell therapies on two fronts: creating encapsulation materials that are biocompatible, and showing that islet cells developed using Dr Melton’s technique can function as a component of such a therapy. In the future, the researchers will focus on optimising alginate’s biocompatibility with the human body in order to move this potential therapy into clinical testing phase.

Who and where

The studies were funded by JDRF in collaboration with The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Drs Anderson and Langer are based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dr Melton is a researcher at Harvard University.

Image credit: MIT

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