Scientists at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) have designed a device meant to enclose future insulin-producing stem cells that could render transplant therapies more efficient.
This type of technology is called encapsulation and supports the development of working islet cells in the body of people with type 1 diabetes by protecting them from autoimmune attack.
The new implantable device, developed by Tejal Desai and her colleagues at UCSF’s schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, serves as a thin protecting coating for the new cells.
Once inserted under the skin, the encapsulated cells can sense and communicate with their environment through the porous external membrane of the device.
This lets oxygen in and out of the cells and enables responses to changes in blood glucose as well as the release of insulin while they are kept safe from immune reactions.
This kind of immuno-isolation device is promising, as it allows people to get the benefit of the cells without having to suppress their immune system through life-long courses of drugs that come with serious side effects, including infection and cancer.
Progress is also being made in newer encapsulation devices like this one with the use of specific biomaterials that reduce risks of fibrosis (the build-up of scar tissue) at the transplant site and improve islet function.
The membrane of this particular device is also made of nanopores, as opposed to larger pores, to ensure that the cells cannot infiltrate other tissues and facilitate their removal.
Desai’s cell encapsulation device attracted the attention of biotechnology companies working on research advances in type 1 diabetes and has just recently been licensed for use by the American biotech company Encellin.
The new device will be integrated into Encellin’s existing implantable cell delivery system, so far only tested in animals, for upcoming human research on stem cell-derived therapies in type 1 diabetes.
Encapsulation and protection of islet cells remains a critical hurdle that needs to be overcome before stem cell therapy becomes a reality in type 1 diabetes. The improvement of encapsulation techniques is another step in the right direction.

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