Major breakthrough made in treatment of type 1 diabetes

27 Jan 2016

Two studies have been released that appear to show a potential new therapy for those living with type 1 diabetes that wouldn’t use drugs to suppress the immune system.

Currently, type 1 diabetes –an autoimmune disease that kills insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas – requires daily injections of insulin with one treatment option being a transplant to replace the patient’s islet cells, which are clumps of cells which create insulin in the pancreas.

However, because the body sees this transplant as an invasive species in the body, the patient also needs to take immunosuppressant drugs.

This treatment, while beneficial in the short term, gradually loses effectiveness over time as the immunosuppressant drugs gradually destroy the implanted islet cells leaving the patient back at square one.

Now, according to Diabetes Ireland, there have been two papers published in Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology, respectively, which detail a new potential treatment that would encapsulate the new islet cells and protect them from the immunosuppressant drugs, thereby allowing them to control their blood sugar level without the need to take any drugs.

The first paper showed the team had developed their modified alginate material capable of encapsulating the islet cells.

The material, developed from brown algae, had been used before in attempts to encapsulate cells without causing them any direct harmful effects but it had been shown that, over time, scar tissue would eventually build up that would render the treatment useless.

Could establish long-term insulin independence

However, developing the concept further, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers discovered that one modified alginate – triazole-thiomorpholine dioxide (TMTD) – did not provoke a reaction when transplanted into mice.

The second study – published in Nature Medicine – then implanted TMTD-infused islet cells in mice with strong immune systems and it was found to maintain a healthy glucose level in the mice for the 174-day trial period.

Speaking of the breakthrough, the VP of Discovery Research at JDRF – an organisation funding diabetes research – Julia Greenstein, said: “Encapsulation therapies have the potential to be groundbreaking for people with type-1 diabetes.

“These treatments aim to effectively establish long-term insulin independence and eliminate the daily burden of managing the condition for months, possibly years, at a time, without the need for immune suppression.”

Updated 28/1/2016

This article has been amended to show that type-1 diabetes is not treated with immunosuppressant drugs, rather it is part of the treatment of the transplant of new islet cells into the patient.

Diabetes treatment image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic