An implantable “teabag” device could be used to treat children with type 1 diabetes in the future, researchers have said.
A team from the Department of Surgery and Medical Imaging at the University of Arizona College of Medicine are among the many scientists worldwide exploring the exciting field of islet cell encapsulation.
Islet cell encapsulation is a form of transplantation. A significant challenge with transplantation is that the body’s immune system is programmed to attack islet cells, so immunosuppressant drugs are required, which can cause side effects. In children, the side effects of these drugs can be dangerous, so the technique is not recommended.
Islet cell encapsulation involves implanting a small pouch that contains islet cells. The islet cells can respond to blood glucose levels, releasing insulin when needed. The pouch helps keep the immune system away from attacking the islet cells inside.
“It’s like a tea bag,” explained lead author Dr Klearchos Papas. “The tea leaves stay inside but tea, or insulin, comes out. And the tea bag keeps out the immune cells that would normally attack the islets.”
Islet cell encapsulation has its own challenges too. One of these is that the cells need oxygen to stay alive. To aid this, the team has developed a battery-powered oxygen generator. The size of a stack of 10p pieces, it can be implanted under the skin and recharges wirelessly.
Dr Papa added: “The unique thing we bring to the table is the combination of an optimised tea bag with its own oxygen supply. Islets are happier with an oxygen supply; they survive and function better and this has been overlooked in the past.”
The team are now hoping to trial their technology breakthroughs in clinical trials within the next four years.
Dr Papa said of the research: “This is not pie-in-the-sky crazy science. We believe, engineering-wise, it is achievable. The cells and the biology were the difficult part and they have come a long way in the past five years.”
Robert C. Robbins, MD, President of the University of Arizona, added: “The work that Dr. Papas and his team are doing to help children with diabetes is a great example of using new technology to significantly improve quality of life for patients.”
The research has been published online in the journal Endocrine Connections.

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