Published on 19 February 2016

Researchers in the US have developed an implant device that helps protect insulin producing cells – and could provide a huge step in the search for a cure of type 1 diabetes.

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) said they believed their findings “brings the promise of a possible cure for type 1 diabetes within striking distance of phase 1 clinical trials,” in a new report recently published in the journals, Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology.

In type 1 diabetes the pancreas fails to produce insulin and daily insulin injections are required for life.

The team has held trials on an implantable device in mice that can shield insulin-producing beta cells from immune system attack for six months.

In future trials researchers hope the implant device could be used in the insulin-producing beta cells of people with type 1 diabetes developed from stem cells at the laboratory of HSCI Co-Director Doug Melton.

Professor Melton, of Harvard’s Xander University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, said: “This report is an important step forward, in an animal model, because it shows that there may be a way to overcome one of the major hurdles that have stood in the way of a cure for type 1 diabetes. Now, thanks to the outstanding work of Dan Anderson and Bob Langer at MIT, Gordon Weir at the Joslin Diabetes Center and HSCI, and Dale Greiner at the University of Massachusetts, and our other essential collaborators, we have stem cell-derived beta cells that can provide insulin in a device that appears capable of protecting them from immune attack.”

The bioengineering work was carried out by Professors Daniel G. Anderson and Robert S. Langer at MIT.

A graphic of a pancreas and a researcher

Professor Anderson reported that when implanted in primates, the new device proved to be “biocompatible for six or eight months, without provoking an inflammatory response” or any other side effect.

Professor Anderson added: “We are excited by this new technology and are working hard to advance it to the clinic. These papers represent seven or eight years of work. We started working with Professor Melton a few years ago when he began producing beta cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESC). We are excited by this new technology and are working hard to advance it to the clinic.”

Insulin injections are the main treatment for people with type 1 diabetes, but this does not fully help to regulate the metabolism, or the breaking down of fats into energy, in people with the condition.

When beta cells are functioning normally, they are part of an exquisitely fine-tuned system, providing precisely the amount of insulin the body needs.

The researchers believed that if the device is implanted into the beta cells they could be shielded from immune attack, and would respond to the body’s own signals for insulin, they would be likely to eliminate most, or even all, the complications of type 1 diabetes, and would, in effect, serve as a cure.

In addition, some people with type 2 diabetes who are insulin dependent, may also benefit from the implantation of stem cell-derived beta cells.

The researchers hope they are now close to furthering their tests in phase 1 clinical trials to test the device on humans and test in more detail whether the treatment is safe and whether it works.

DRWF Research Manager, Dr Eleanor Kennedy, said she agreed that this was an important piece of research.

Dr Kennedy said: “It is exciting to see these results. Professor Melton’s group has pioneered the work in this field and this does represent a significant advance.

However, as a note of caution, Dr Kennedy added: “This research has been conducted in primates and the device’s efficacy still needs to be proven in humans. Phase 1 trials will be an interesting next step but, of course, this is just the first step in the pathway to widespread use and robust clinical trials could take several years to complete.”

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