Stem Cell Work Advances Toward Device That Would Shield Insulin-Producing Cells From Attack

The mission is to eliminate daily insulin injections as well as complications for persons with type 1 diabetes.

Collaborative work involving scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute has produced a device designed to overcome one of the challenges of replacing insulin-producing beta cells—helping them survive attack from the immune system.

The device, developed by Daniel G. Anderson, PhD, and Robert S. Langer, PhD, at MIT, has been tested in mice, and safely shielded the beta cells for 6 months, which in this case is a major portion of the life span. Results were published this week in Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology. The device involves a form of alginate, modified to make it less likely to trigger the type of immune responses seen in prior research.

The work builds on research of others, including Gordon C. Weir, MD, of the Joslin Diabetes Center and Dale Greiner, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, in the development of stem cell-derived beta cells. Eventually, the goal would be to implant a persons with type 1 diabetes (T1D) with insulin-producing beta cells in a similar manner.

Anderson told the Harvard Gazette that the publication of the papers this week represented “seven or eight years of work,” which took flight when he began working to produce beta cells from human embryonic stem cells.

Stem cell research is among the areas supported by the JDRF to find cures or treatments for the estimated 3 million Americans who live with T1D, an autoimmune disease that kills off insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Those who live with the disease must survive with daily injections of insulin and a strict dietary regimen to regulate blood sugar and metabolism.

Besides having to adhere to the grinding ritual of daily injections and dietary restrictions, those with diabetes often eventually suffer complications that can include blindness or kidney failure, since injections do not have the same regulatory effectiveness as beta cell produced insulin.

It is believed that many of the techniques being developed to treat or cure T1D might also help those most severely afflicted with type 2 diabetes (T2D), which occurs when the body develops insulin resistance due to genetic or dietary factors.

Fully functioning encapsulated beta cells that produced insulin are seen as a far superior solution to insulin injections; this solution would eventually work in concert with the body like normal insulin production does.


Vegas AJ, Veiseh O, Gurtler M, et al. Long-term glycemic control using polymer-encapsulated human stem cell-derived beta cells in immune-competent mice [published online January 25, 2016]. Nature Med 2016; doi:10.1038/nm.4030.

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