Researchers are reporting what they are describing as “a significant first step” toward a possible cure for type 1 diabetes, which affects about 3 million Americans.
Georgia Tech engineers and Emory University clinicians have successfully implanted insulin-producing cells intodiabetic mice, reversing diabetic symptoms in as little as 10 days.
The research team created a new biomaterial to protect insulin-producing cells — known as pancreatic islets — and help them successfully graft, survive, and function within the body.
“It's very promising,” said Andrés Garcia, Georgia Tech professor of mechanical engineering. “There is a lot of excitement because not only can we get the islets to survive and function, but we can also cure diabetes with fewer islets than are normally needed.”
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The work, funded in part by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and to be published in the June issue of the journal Biomaterials, represents a promising first step to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. The chronic disease occurs when the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone that allows the transport of sugar and other nutrients into tissues where they are converted to energy needed for daily life. As a result, diabetics must take daily insulin shots to stay healthy.
Pancreatic islet transplantation would eliminate the need for insulin injections, but research to date has had mixed results. Some transplantation trials have had some success, and control of glucose levels is often improved, but diabetic symptoms have returned in most patients and they have had to revert to using some insulin.
Past transplants have failed because islets injected directly into the blood vessels in the liver often die due to exposure to blood clotting reactions or because they have problems hooking up to blood vessels.
Georgia Tech and Emory researchers engineered a biological “hydrogel” that surrounds the insulin-producing cells and protects them during injection. Once in the body, the hydrogel degrades and allows the connection of the transplanted islets to new blood vessels.
Four weeks after transplantation, diabetic mice in the new study had normal glucose levels, and the delivered islets were functioning like islets in a healthy mouse pancreas.
Researchers will now test and refine the approach, with the goal of conducting human clinical trials.
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