Alan Chiu, left, and Duo An hold a sample of the TRAFFIC implant. In the background are researchers Minglin Ma, Dan Luo, Meredith Silberstein and Dr. James Flanders. Photo: Cornell University The design of the thread-like implant was inspired by how water beads on a spider’s silk web. Photo: Vanessa Burdett
Low Temperature records for June were set last night in Sydneys west. Frost on Spider webs at Menangle Park in Sydneys west.pic nick moir 300610
Spiderwebs and the way water collects on their silk have inspired a team of researchers to create a device which could revolutionise the management of type 1 diabetes.
For approximately 130,000 Australians who live with the auto-immune disease, a daily insulin injection is a matter of life or death.
The research team from Cornell University in New York believes an implanted device – holding stem cell-derived, insulin-producing cells known as islets – could potentially replace insulin injections.
The design of the thread-like implant was inspired by how water beads on a spider’s silk web.
“We borrowed the structure in the beginning of this study and developed a better configuration later on,” Duo An, the co-lead author of the research paper said.
The team developed a nanoporous thread which holds hundreds of thousands of islets.
While type 1 diabetes is characterised by the immune system destroying the islets in the pancreas, the new device protects the implanted cells from the body’s immune response with a uniform hydrogel layer around the thread.
Previous methods have tried to coat the individual cells with the protective layer, however, this led to the islets being disconnected from one another and becoming extremely difficult to remove from the body without causing serious damage.
“When they fail or die, they need to come out,” lead researcher Minglin Ma said.
This is key because if these finite functioning cells are not removed when necessary, they have the potential to form tumours.
“You don’t want to put something in the body that you can’t take out. With our method, that’s not a problem,” he said.
“You don’t have any gaps between capsules,” he said. “With a spider’s silk, you still have gaps between the water beads.”
Prior to this study, there had been strong evidence that islet encapsulation could overcome the body’s immune system destroying the cells.
However, the challenge was designing a device that could effectively achieve the mechanical properties required and be biologically compatible.
The researchers discovered that by having a uniformly protective layer covering the hundreds of thousands of islets, the device can be easily and safely implanted and removed through non-invasive laparoscopic surgery.
Officially labelled Thread-Reinforced Alginate Fibre For Islets enCapsulation (TRAFFIC), the research team effectively tested the thread in mice.
They implanted a 2.5 centimetre length of TRAFFIC into the animals which successfully reduced their blood glucose levels within two days.
A schematic illustration of TRAFFIC, the implant device for control of type 1 diabetes developed in the lab of Minglin Ma, biological and environmental engineering. Photo: Cornell University
From there, 25 centimetre threads were implanted in dogs and then easily removed through laparoscopic surgery one month after.
The longest animal study was over a four-month period.
Dr An explained the experiment did not end due to failure of the device, but to look at improving the optimal lifetime of the device. The researchers estimate the current life span for the thread could be between six and 24 months.
“There are many other factors affecting this aspect, such as material modification, cell quality and the surgical procedure,” he said. “More thorough studies are still on-going.”
With so much promise from the results so far, the researchers are hoping to continue testing the device in humans by placing 1.8 metres of TRAFFIC inside the peritoneal cavity, which is located between the membrane that forms the abdominal lining and the membrane surrounding the internal organs.
However, if human experiments are successful, the device is likely to take some time to become available to Australian diabetics, as “there are still some issues that need to be addressed” in terms of mass production, Dr An said.
If further research and mass production is successful, the researchers believe the device could become a potential game changer in delivering new cells to the body without immune rejection.
This could then lead to the thread being used for a range of endocrine and hormone-deficient disorders.
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