A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has introduced a novel implantable device that has the potential to revolutionize the lives of Type 1 diabetes patients. This ground-breaking device not only holds hundreds of thousands of insulin-producing islet cells, but it also has an onboard oxygen factory capable of manufacturing oxygen by splitting water vapour found in the body.
The current work, led by MIT Research Scientist Siddharth Krishnan and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows the device’s incredible potential. It effectively maintained steady blood glucose levels in diabetic mice for at least a month after being implanted. The researchers’ next goal is to create a scaled-up version of the device, roughly the size of a chewing gum stick, for future human experiments.
Consider a “living medical device” made up of human cells secreting insulin and supported by an electronic life support system, according to Daniel Anderson, a professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the study’s senior author. So far, progress has been good, and experts are optimistic that this technology may provide a life-changing answer for Type 1 diabetes patients.
While diabetes therapy is the primary emphasis, the device’s versatility opens the door to possible uses in treating other diseases that require the repeated administration of therapeutic proteins, bringing hope for countless individuals in need of long-term treatment.
A Diabetes Breakthrough
The daily routine of checking blood glucose levels and self-administering insulin shots is a never-ending difficulty for those with Type 1 diabetes. These efforts, while important, fall short of mimicking the body’s natural ability to manage blood glucose levels.
The ideal solution would be to transplant cells capable of generating insulin in response to elevated blood glucose levels. While successful, the use of islet cells from human cadavers or stem cells has required patients to take immunosuppressive medicines to prevent rejection.
To address this constraint and eliminate the need for immunosuppressive medicines, the MIT research team devised a novel approach: enclosing the transplanted cells within a flexible structure that protects them from the immune system.
Previous experiments included oxygen chambers that required periodic reloading and implants with chemical reagents for oxygen synthesis, both of which had problems. MIT’s solution, on the other hand, used a seemingly limitless resource: water vapour in the body.
To split water vapour into hydrogen and oxygen, the device utilises a proton-exchange membrane, which was initially designed for hydrogen generation in fuel cells. The hydrogen evaporates harmlessly, whereas the oxygen is kept for the islet cells via a thin, oxygen-permeable membrane. Surprisingly, this technology does not use wires or batteries, instead relying on resonant inductive coupling for wireless power transfer, which is provided by an externally located tuned magnetic coil.
The device, about the size of a quarter, was tested on diabetic mice. Those that received the oxygen-generating gadget maintained normal blood glucose levels, mimicking the health of non-diabetic mice, whereas those who received the non-oxygenated device developed hyperglycemia after two weeks.
Despite the formation of scar tissue around the implant, the device effectively controlled blood glucose levels, suggesting that insulin could diffuse out of the device as glucose entered it.
Beyond diabetes treatment, this novel technique has the potential to deliver cells expressing numerous therapeutic proteins for extended periods of time. The gadget effectively maintained cells that produce erythropoietin, a protein that stimulates red blood cell synthesis.
A Glimpse into the Future of Medicine
The next step for the researchers is to adapt the gadget for testing in larger animals and, eventually, human participants. The goal is to create an implant the size of a stick of chewing gum that takes use of the inherent stability and lifespan of the materials employed.
“We are very excited about these findings, which we believe could someday provide a whole new way of treating diabetes and possibly other diseases,” said Robert Langer, an MIT professor and member of the Koch Institute.
JDRF, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health provided funding for this groundbreaking research.
In a world where chronic diseases often control daily lives, MIT’s breakthrough implantable device shines as a light of hope, delivering not just a treatment but a potential cure for Type 1 diabetes.