The Harvard Gazette reports researchers at Harvard, MIT and the Joslin Diabetes Center have successfully tested an implantable bundle containing human pancreas cells in mice and primates with type 1 diabetes.
Key to the research is alginate, a substance derived from seaweed that blocks the immune system from attacking the container for the new cells as "foreign" without the need for expensive and risky immune suppressing drugs.
If the system works in people, it could eliminate the need for frequent insulin injections and blood testing and provide better lives for patients by eliminating blood-sugar spikes that can damage organs.
The Gazette reports the researchers embedded insulin-producing cells - derived from embryonic stem cells, in alginate, and then implanted that in animals. After six months, the bundles were still producing insulin and showed no signs of damage from immune-system attacks.
When beta cells are functioning normally, they are part of an exquisitely fine-tuned system, providing precisely the amount of insulin the body needs. Injections cannot come close to mimicking the body’s own insulin-production system, however, and as a result patients can develop complications ranging from blindness to heart disease to loss of limbs. Type 1 diabetes causes or contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths annually.
It is believed that if implanted beta cells could be shielded from immune attack, and would respond to the body’s own signals for insulin, they would be likely to eliminate most, or even all, the complications of the disease, and would, in effect, serve as a cure.