Encapsulated islet cells is a treatment for type 1 diabetes that is currently undergoing research and development.

Encapsulated islet cells can be likened to an advanced form of transplantation but has the distinct advantage that the treatment does not require the recipient to take immunosuppressive drugs.

Encapsulated islet cells in the news

What are encapsulated islet cells?

Encapsulated islet cells are specific stem cells that are contained in a protective capsule. The capsule is implanted into the body and the stem cells grow into cells capable of producing insulin, as well as other hormones.

The capsule is specially designed to allow blood to feed the cells within the capsule with oxygen and nutrients and allowing the hormones, such as insulin, to leave the capsule, whilst preventing white blood cells of the immune system from entering the capsule and killing off the islet cells.

Benefits of encapsulated islet cells

If encapsulated islet cells prove to work in humans as well as is hoped, they could produce the following benefits:

Whilst not strictly a cure, but rather a treatment, encapsulated islet cells would represent a near cure experience that could see people control their diabetes with minimal management for many months.

The researchers are expecting encapsulated islet cells to be effective for up to 2 years.

What are islet cells?

Islet cells are the cells within the pancreas that produce a number of hormones including the key blood sugar regulating hormones insulin and glucagon. One type of islet cells, called beta cells, produce insulin and alpha cells produce glucagon.

Why encapsulation helps

Islet cells can be transplanted but the effects of type 1 diabetes mean that strong immunosuppressive drugs need to be taken. The reason for this is that type 1 diabetes causes the immune system to attack and destroy the insulin producing beta cells.

Whilst immunosuppressive drugs help to prolong the life of beta cells, the effects of the autoimmune attack (attack of the body’s own cells) mean that people that have had a transplant often need to go back to taking insulin within a number of months.

The other disadvantage is that immunosuppressive drugs include a number of side effects and reduce the body’s ability to combat infections.

A major strength of encapsulation is that no immunosuppressive drugs need to be taken.

Which companies are developing encapsulated islet cells?

Encapsulated islet cells are currently being developed by the following companies:

  • ViaCyte
  • Austrianova and Nuvilex

ViaCyte is developing its encapsulated islet cell therapy, known as VC-01, which uses its Encaptra drug delivery system to encapsulated islet cells from a stem cell source.

The collaboration of Austrianova and Nuvilex is developing its Cell-in-Box live cell sulfate-based encapsulation technology which has been tested using islet cells from pigs and hamsters.

Early human trials have already begun for each of these projects.

When will encapsulated islet cells be available?

Even if everything were to go to plan, it would be a number of years before the technology is available.

The JDRF, that have been involved from an early stage in funding the development of encapsulated islet cells, state that more than $60 million (US) needs to be raised to fund the next 5 years of development.

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