Of all the inspirations for ideas to cure diabetes, a spider's web seems least likely. But in fact, something with that type of structure could be just the ticket to a biological cure.
So say researchers at Cornell University, working on what some refer to as a Spider's Web project.
The concept is to implant a sort of synthetic string inside the body that would allow clumps of insulin-producing islet cells to be connected together -- resembling the "beads on a string" structure spider's silk uses to collect water droplets. That would allow islet cells to be easily removed and replaced while protecting them from the body's natural immune system response.
This is still in the early stages of mouse research, but it's being described as (yet another) potential breakthrough or game-changer. A research paper released in early January 2018 outlines the concept and sets the stage for broader discussion within the scientific community, along with all of us watching cure research headlines and pondering the future.
We connected with the research team to explore this, and here's what we learned in a nutshell about this removable implant for T1Ds...
Who's behind this research?
It's all based at Cornell University research lab, led by Assistant Professor Minglin Ma in the Biotech Engineering Department. While we're told they don't have personal connections to diabetes that influenced their work, they do have undergraduate researchers in the lab who are living with T1D and are also closely collaborating with Cornell students with T1D as they move through the process.
What's behind the 'thread' idea?
The notion of "islet cell encapsulation," i.e. implanting a device that houses and protects insulin-producing cells to effectively "cure" diabetes, is not new; it's been around for decades and is being explored by numerous researchers at different institutions. But one of the issues the Cornell team identified was how near-impossible it currently is to retrieve those hundreds of thousands of implanted islet cells containing microcapsules that are not connected. So, they wanted to make the implant-and-replace process easier.
"We proposed an idea that we could use a thread to connect the microcapsules together, so the implant can be easily retrieved as a whole," says bio-engineering researcher Duo An. You don't want to put something in the body you can't take out."
What does it look like?
Basically the cells have a thin, hydrogel coating protecting them. They're attached to a web-like polymer string -- or in science lingo, an "ionized calcium-releasing nanoporous polymer thread." All of the hydrogel is uniformly layered on the thread. Officially, the research team has named this: TRAFFIC, which stands for Thread-Reinforced Alginate Fiber For Islets enCapsulation.
A full description is outlined in the Jan. 9 research paper, "Designing a Retrievable and Scalable Cell Encapsulation Device for Potential Treatment of Type 1 Diabetes."
Where in the body?
This TRAFFIC thread device would go under the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the stomach, and covers all the organs in there like the liver and bowels. It would be implanted using a minimal surgical procedure to the abdomen using a camera. The researchers say they're still working on modifying the implantation and retrieval procedure to see if it could be made easier and more appealing for patients.
The longest time they've had it implanted -- in a mouse with diabetes, mind you -- is four months, to date. They're now doing longer-term experiments and hope that eventually, the research will prove the device can work for years in human patients before needing replacement.
How's this better?
While the spider web concept is unique, this all sounded a bit familiar...
We've heard a lot about ViaCyte, which made big news in August 2017 when the company announced the first human patients were being implanted with their encapsulation device in both Edmonton, Ontario, and San Diego, CA. There's also the Diabetes Research Institute's BioHub device, the Sernvoa cell pouch and many other projects doing this same type of thing with islet cell encapsulation concepts. So we asked the Cornell team to clarify how exactly this trumps other approaches.
"Our device should have better biocompatibility and mass transfer property due to the geometry of the device. Also, our device is easily scalable, which has the potential to deliver sufficient cells to cure a human patient. Moreover, our device can be easily implanted/replaced/retrieved through a minimal-invasive laparoscopic procedure," Dr. Ma says.
What about immunosuppression drugs and islet cell supply?
According to the Cornell research team, no immunosupression methods are needed.
This is because the islet cells attached to the thread are encapsulated in hydrogels, which isolate and protect them from the immune system attack. "We are conducting more experiments to study the immuno-isolation effect and trying to make modifications to the hydrogel for even better biocompatibility," they tell us.
An also points out that with the "recent advancements in the stem cell field," researchers are able to differentiate them and better identify which can be turned into functioning beta cells. The team is collaborating with leading stem cell experts to test the stem cell-derived beta cells when using the TRAFFIC device.
What's the timeline here?
As noted, they're still in the mouse phase of research and some years away from potential human testing.
An says, "Our group is working very hard on pushing this technology from the research bench to clinical implementation. We are hoping that our technology will be delivered to clinical trials in a few years. However, the exact timeline is unknown now due to the nature of the scientific research."
Funding this research
Interestingly, this cure research is not funded by JDRF, but partially by the American Diabetes Association, as well as other support from private resources such as the 3M Co., Cornell Technology Acceleration and Maturation Fund, the Cornell Stem Cell Program Seed Fund and the Hartwell Foundation. It also has patent protection with the help of insulin manufacturer Novo Nordisk, which collaborated on the recent paper released on this research.
Intriguing stuff, for sure. We're always excited to see novel research concepts being pursued and the Scientific Community collaborating on new ideas... one of which will hopefully lead to an actual cure!