Major advancement in islet cell transplantation for treating Type-1 diabetes

Penn researchers invent a method for keeping donor insulin-producing cells alive long-term under the skin of patients.

A cure for Type-1 diabetes has come closer with the development of a new method for keeping transplanted insulin-producing cells alive and functional in recipients for long periods even when transplanted underneath the skin. A team led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine reports the new method, and its successful testing in multiple animal models, in a paper that published in Nature Metabolism.

Hand holding clear plastic plate displaying blood sugar data.

Type-1 diabetes, which affects more than 1.25 million people in the United States, usually strikes in childhood and is caused by an abnormal immune reaction. The immune reaction attacks and destroys cells in the pancreas known as beta cells—specialized cells that cluster in groupings called “islets” and help regulate blood sugar levels by producing insulin.

Transplantation of healthy islets of beta cells from donors has long been viewed as a potential cure for the condition, which otherwise requires life-long frequent insulin injections and blood-sugar monitoring. But researchers have had difficulty keeping transplanted beta cells alive for the long-term. The new method appears largely to overcome this difficulty, as shown in a variety of subcutaneous beta-cell transplants to mice and monkeys. These preclinical demonstrations could pave the way for clinical trials in human patients.

“Transplanting beta cells under the skin of patients may have many advantages, including safety and ease of monitoring, and here, we’ve shown in preclinical experiments that these grafted cells can survive and function to reverse diabetes long-term,” says study senior author Ali Naji, the J. William White Professor of Surgical Research at Penn.

Naji’s team developed a mixture of molecules, including collagen, a protein found in skin and cartilage, that partly recreate the molecular environment of the pancreas where beta cells normally grow. Islet Viability Matrix (IVM), as they call this mix, also seems to specifically promote the survival of beta cells in conditions where they would otherwise perish.

This story is by Abbey Hunton. Read more at Penn Medicine News.