California medical research scientists believe that they may have found a way to transplant insulin-producing cells into diabetic patients who lack those cells and protect them from immune rejection. Their system, one of several promising approaches under development, hasn’t yet been tested in people. If their approach works, it could make living with diabetes much less of a burden and free people living with Type-1 diabetes from having to regularly test and monitor their blood sugar levels and insulin injections.
While some researchers are developing machines to automate that process, Crystal Nyitray, founder and CEO of the San Francisco based biotechnology startup Encellin, didn’t want to use a machine to treat diabetes. As a graduate student in bioengineering at the University of California, San Francisco, Nyitray wanted to try something different: living cells.
“Cells are the ultimate smart machine,” Nyitray says. A coin-sized, semipermeable pouch is key to the proposed implant. The pouch allows the cells inside to thrive and release insulin, the researchers say, while protecting the cells from immune rejection. Clinical trials that transplant insulin-making pancreatic cells into people with diabetes have been underway for several years, with some success. But the recipient’s immune system is hard on these transplanted cells, and most patients still need insulin injections eventually. This new research could eliminate that need entirely.