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New research part-funded by JDRF has found a material derived from seaweed could help to protect insulin-producing beta cells after they’ve been transplanted into the body.

Islet transplantation is currently limited to people who have unstable type 1 diabetes (T1D), particularly those with hypoglycaemic unawareness who suffer recurrent and severe ‘hypos’. While islet transplantation is a safe procedure, there is need for more research on all aspects to refine it further and make it available to even more people.

A current challenge for the widespread use of islet transplantation to treat T1D is how to prevent the immune system from destroying implanted cells and how to protect cells without needing immune-suppressing drugs.

brown seaweed

In this study, the researchers used a material called alginate, refined from brown seaweed, to wrap beta cells, forming a protective barrier. They tested out seven different formulations of alginate to see which one worked best. They tested some formulations that have been tested in clinical trials already that were not successful long term, and some new, modified formulations that can change the immune system function.

The group found that one type of chemically-modified alginate successfully protected beta cells from the immune system, without the need for immune suppressing drugs, for four months in monkeys. The cells were transplanted in a different location than normal – under the abdomen skin.

Further research is needed on the long-term ability of the alginate formulation to protect cells, allowing blood glucose levels to be managed without the need for injections. Once this is perfected in monkeys then it can be tested in humans.

As alginate is a natural substance, this could potentially be a safe and inexpensive way to encapsulate beta cells in future. Successful encapsulation that resists the immune attack would be a big step forwards towards a cure.

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JDRF- funded research includes encapsulation techniques to protect islets such as artificial skin and membrane systems, encouraging stem cells to behave like beta cells and modification of islet cells to allow them to fend off the immune system attack. The T1DCRN is funding a large trial investigating drug-free approaches to immunosuppression to protect implanted islets. This is led by Professor Philip O’Connell and the Westmead group.

 

This research was published in the scientific journal Nature.

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