Researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) show that type 1 diabetes can be effectively halted for up to six months, signalling a breakthrough in curing the autoimmune disease.
In this new study, funded by the JDRF, researchers demonstrated that encapsulated human islet cells can be transplanted into mice without causing an immune response.
In 2014, Harvard University created huge quantities of insulin-producing beta cells using stem cells, raising hopes that human transplantation could take place within years.
It is believed that this is the first time that these stem cells have successfully been used in animal studies, and JDRF Vice President of Discovery Research, Julia Greenstei, is optimistic that the positive findings will soon have human implications.
“JDRF is excited by these findings and we hope to see this research progress into human clinical trials and ultimately a potential new T1D therapy,” said Greenstein.
Encapsulating islet cells
The findings are reported in two studies published in Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine. In the Nature Biotechnology paper, the researchers describe how a material originally derived from brown algae, called alginate, is designed to encapsulate human pancreatic islet cells.
Alginate has previously encapsulated islet cells without causing them harm, but an immune response over time left them ineffective. To compensate for this, MIT researchers created nearly 800 alginate derivatives, focusing ultimately on one called triazole-thiomorpholine dioxide (TMTD). TMTD provoked a minimal immune response in mice and large animal models.
The second paper, published in Nature Medicine, reports how the researchers implanted human islet cells encapsulated in TMTD into mice with strong immune systems. The cells immediately produced insulin in response to blood glucose levels within a healthy range for 174 days.
Senior author Daniel Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor at MIT, said: “We are excited by these results, and are working hard to advance this technology to the clinic. These results lay the groundwork for future human studies using these formulations with the goal of achieving long-term replacement therapy for type 1 diabetes.
“We believe (the cells) have the potential to provide insulin independence for patients suffering from this disease. It has the potential to provide diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That’s the dream.”

Greenstein added: “Encapsulation therapies have the potential to be groundbreaking for people with T1D. These treatments aim to effectively establish long-term insulin independence and eliminate the daily burden of managing the disease for months, possibly years, at a time without the need for immune suppression.”
Alongside Harvard and MIT, scientists at the University of Illinois, Boston Children’s Hospital and the University of Massachusetts were involved in this research.

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