Cell Encapsulation Technique That Could Treat Glaucoma and Hemophilia May Make Insulin Injections a Thing of the Past


According to Science Blog, a therapeutics company is on its way to creating an implantable, insulin-producing device that may give injections a run for their money. Therapies similar to this have been known to potentially treat glaucoma, hemophilia, cancer, heart failure, and Parkinson’s disease.

Glaucoma is the umbrella term for a group of conditions that are characterized by progressive optic nerve damage in the eye. The increased pressure damages the optic nerve, which is connected to the brain. If the pressure and damage worsens over time, glaucoma has the potential to lead to permanent loss of vision. Glaucoma is usually diagnosed by an eye doctor and treatments revolve around the individual and specific needs of patients. To learn more about glaucoma, click here.

Hemophilia, another disease mentioned in the article, is a rare disorder of the blood in which it does not clot like it’s supposed to. Therefore, those with hemophilia often bleed for longer than the average person might. This condition provides serious implications for those who experience deep, internal bleeding, though a minor cut or scrape likely has little effect. There are two known types of hemophilia and the condition is diagnosed by blood tests. There is no cure for the disease, but treatments are available. To learn more about hemophilia, read this.

Now, Sigilon Therapeutics is working on developing “living drug factories” which can be safely implanted into the body. These engineered cells will be capable of producing insulin and administering it into the body over the course of months or potentially years. The treatment device will be tiny hydrogel beads that are able to be implanted into a human body with minimal invasiveness.

“The hope is that this living device can be placed in a patient, avoid the need for immune-suppression, and provide long-term therapy,” said co-inventor Daniel G. Anderson from MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

This comes after recent research on cell encapsulation. The process involves encapsulating transplanted cells with a thin film of polymer to fight off the immune response but still nourish the cells. This technique, as mentioned earlier, has proven its potential to treat glaucoma, hemophilia, cancer, heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and more. However, there are no currently approved treatments on the market.

But Julia Greenstein of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation picked up on this. She then took it to a team at MIT for some help. They wanted to use this same cell encapsulation technique and apply it to a treatment for diabetes.

The question for the team was finding what type of material could adequately protect the cells but also allow them to remain invisible in the immune system. The research team found their answer in a chemically modified alginate (a polysaccharide found in brown algae). The alginate, when combined with water, is capable of successfully encapsulating the cells without limiting the function of them.

Though they found a workable capsule for the cell to live in, they still needed to make sure that the capsule would not cause fibrosis, which is scar tissue accumulation that could potentially block insulin transfer and cause the encapsulated cell to die off. In order to do this, they chemically modified the structure until they found a structure that didn’t set off an immune response.

After finally being perfected, the final result was “A hydrogel that keeps cells alive and is permeable so that sugar and nutrients can come in and insulin can come out, but still blocks cellular elements of the immune system, like T cells, which can destroy the therapeutic cells inside,” said Anderson.

Sigilon Therapeutics is partnering with the pharmaceutical company Lilly to take on this project. For Sigilon, however, this venture is just the beginning of much more to come.

“Lilly is a major player in diabetes treatment, and we will take this forward [to treat diabetes],” said Anderson. “But we see this as technology that can be used for many applications.”

To learn more about this cell encapsulation technology as well as Sigilon’s future projects, click here.

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