Treating Type 1 Diabetes with Synthetic Cells

Beta Cell

Treating type 1 diabetes (T1D) takes careful planning and calculation. Individuals must test their blood to determine their blood glucose level, then calculate exactly how much insulin they need to inject. They must pay careful attention to what they eat and how their body responds. This is because, with type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys insulin-producing beta cells. In individuals without T1D, these beta cells automatically secrete insulin to keep blood glucose levels in check.

However, researchers from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State are testing synthetic cells that could replace those cells that have been destroyed and automatically release insulin in response to the body’s needs. They have created “artificial beta cells” or AβCs that are packed with insulin-stuffed vesicles. When blood sugar rises, the coating of the artificial cells changes and insulin is released. The cells would need to be injected every few days, or can be delivered by a skin patch that is replaced regularly.

These AβCs are an advancement in potential treatments for T1D. There are some studies regarding transplanting cells – whether donor cells, modified cells, or harvested cells – but the challenge is that they often require some immune suppression, can be very expensive, and the body generally ends up destroying these cells as well. The synthetic cells would be regularly replaced with new AβCs as they distributed their insulin. Studies conducted in mice have found that blood glucose levels returned to normal levels within one hour and were maintained for up to five days.

According to John Buse, MD, PhD, the Verne S. Caviness Distinguished Professor at UNC, chief of the division of endocrinology, and director of the UNC Diabetes Care Center who is a co-author of the study, “There is still much work needed to optimize this artificial-cell approach before human studies are attempted, but these results so far are a remarkable, creative first step to a new way to solve the diabetes problem using chemical engineering as opposed to mechanical pumps or living transplants.”

While this approach is still in development and requires more extensive testing, it is a step in the right direction for improving quality of life for individuals with T1D and improving management of the disease.

The Diabetes Research Connection supports innovative research to prevent or cure type 1 diabetes, reduce complications of the disease, and improve quality of life. Early career scientists can receive up to $50,000 in funding for their research through donations by individuals, corporations, and foundations. Click to learn more about current projects and provide support.

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