How could seaweed help us cure type 1 diabetes?

Posted on 23 August 2018

Close up of kelp seaweed

A material derived from seaweed could help to protect transplanted insulin-producing cells, according to a recent study in the US.

The researchers, who were partly funded by JDRF, tested out seven different versions of the material ‘alginate’, typically found in seaweed.

Ultimately, one of the alginate materials was able to coat and protect insulin-producing beta cells for four months after transplantation into monkeys, without the need for immunosuppressant drugs.

This work brings us one step closer to finding a way of safely replacing the lost beta cells for people living with type 1 diabetes, and eliminating daily management of the condition.

Why did they do this research?

People who live with type 1 diabetes no longer have enough functioning beta cells, and so have to carefully manage their glucose levels by balancing insulin intake with many other factors, such as food, exercise, hormones and stress.

Encapsulation research aims to replace the lost beta cells in such a way that they would be protected from the immune attack, so that the person would be able to produce insulin automatically again.

Recently, researchers have been testing alginate-based techniques in animals as well as humans. Building on this, the researchers investigated whether different types of alginate could protect beta cells from the body’s attack after transplantation.

What did they do?

The researchers made tiny balls – microspheres – out of the different alginate materials. The team then trialled the different microspheres in a small number of monkeys to see how the body responded.

The most promising material was also used to coat groups of beta cells, which were then transplanted into monkeys for up to four months.

The chosen material was able to protect the groups of beta cells from rejection, with over 75% of the beta cells in the groups still functioning. This is despite the lack of immunosuppressant drugs.

What does this mean for type 1?

These results indicate that it may be possible to use alginate to develop a successful encapsulation technique, although more research will be needed first.

In the future, this technique could be used in combination with lab-grown beta cells to deliver personalised treatments for people living with type 1 diabetes. This could become a ‘functional cure’ for those living with the condition, as daily management of type 1 diabetes would no longer be necessary to keep glucose levels in range.

What’s the next step?

In their paper, the researchers suggest that the next step could be trialling the use of the alginate material to protect donated beta cells in (the rare) cases of transplants in people with type 1 diabetes and severe hypo unawareness.

Insulin-producing cells grown from stem cells in the lab. Part of JDRF's cure research for type 1 diabetes

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