A successful islet cell transplant could change the world for a person with type 1 diabetes. Not being able to produce insulin means a person with type 1 will face a lifetime of fluctuating blood sugar levels, never-ending healthcare costs, and a list of possible health complications that could fill a dictionary. New islet cells could mean freedom from all that.
But before we let our imaginations run away from us, we need to remember what causes type 1 in the first place: the body’s immune system attacks islet cells. So an islet cell transplant means a lifetime of immunosuppressive drugs, and both the drugs and procedure is fraught with risks and not currently approved in the United States. Even pancreas transplants, which are only possible in certain cases, come with a risk of rejection and require a lifetime of drugs.
We reported earlier on a team from Cornell working to create an islet cell implant that involved islet cells coated in hydrogel attached to a removable string. Now a new biotechnology startup company, Encellin (say it out loud), has a different idea for an insulin implant: a soft round insert smaller than a quarter that responds to glucose by letting insulin out, but conveniently keeps the islet-hating immune system out.
Crystal Nyitray, Ph.D. chemical biology and CEO of Encellin, wanted to find a way to implant islet cells that would produce insulin without causing immune rejection. She created an implant with living islet cells encased in a flexible membrane that’s easy to implant under the skin. The membrane allows insulin to pass into the body when it’s stimulated by glucose, but protects the islet cells from the hostile immune system.
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Dr. Nyitray told NPR News that she thinks of the system like a house with a screened window, “So you can feel the breeze of the air outside, and smell everything, but the bugs and the flies aren’t able to get through because you have the screen in place,” she said. The breezy implant that she describes sounds delightful, but it’s been a tough road.
Dr. Nyitray was originally discouraged from pursuing her idea because of all the challenges similar projects have had in the past. Her grad school advisor, Dr. Tejal Desai, flat out told Dr. Nyitray not to pursue the project. But she pursued it anyway and finally convinced Dr. Desai: “When she showed me the experiment—where she took islet cells in our devices, and showed that the ones in our devices actually pumped out more insulin and were alive longer—that was what convinced me,” Dr. Desai told NPR.
The device is about as thick as a human hair and is fundraising for human trials. In November of 2017, Encellin won a $10,000 grant from the American Diabetes Association, so the idea is getting noticed.
It’s true that similar projects have struggled and even failed in the past, but Dr. Nyitray is hopeful that her idea will be the one to go all the way from conception to implementation. “For us,” she said, “this is a passion. And we believe in what we are doing.”
We hope that their tenacity and faith are rewarded—preferably sooner rather than later. Even if things go perfectly, a marketable product would still take a few years, but it could make a lifetime of difference for people with diabetes.
Keep fighting, friends!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.