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Top 3 type 1 diabetes updates from research conference

Researchers from across the world – many previously funded by us – came to London to discuss the latest research on growing pancreatic cells in the lab to one day treat type 1.

On 19th and 20th July 2022, Professor Francesca Spagnoli of Kings College London held a conference called Engineering Multicellular Tissues.

Here are the most exciting developments from the conference:

  1. Human trials transplanting islets without immunosuppressive drugs announced
  2. Blood vessels may hold the key to growing beta cells
  3. Huge advancements in 3D bioprinting

Clinical trial transplanting donor islets without immunosuppression

In the last 20 years, around 300 people with type 1 have received a transplant of clusters of cells in the pancreas called islets. These islets contain functional beta cells that help people with type 1 produce insulin again. But, because the islets are taken from another person (a donor), the immune system thinks they are a threat and attacks them.

Transplants without immunosuppressant drugs

People who receive transplants must take drugs called immunosuppressants to keep the islets safe from the immune system. This leaves people more vulnerable to other diseases. So, scientists are working out how to transplant pancreatic islets without needing immunosuppressant drugs.

Initial research successful

Dr Andrés García, who JDRF have funded since 2013, told the audience at the conference that he has developed a mixture that can support and protect transplanted islets without immunosuppressant drugs. When Dr García transplanted islets into monkeys with type 1 alongside his hydrogel, it reversed their hyperglycemia and they stopped needing insulin from an external source.

Trials in humans coming soon

Dr García announced that he will now test this new treatment on people with type 1 diabetes in a clinical trial. In the trial, which he expects to launch in summer 2023, he will transplant both the hydrogel and pancreatic islets from donors into people with type 1.

Blood vessels may hold the key to growing beta cells

As the beta cells are destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes, researchers are trying to grow new beta cells in the lab. But only mature beta cells produce insulin and getting them to mature is a slow and difficult process. However, blood vessels may be the answer.

Mature beta cells are near blood vessels

Dr Francis Lynn, a Canadian researcher who we have funded since 2007, discovered that mature beta cells are located close to blood vessels, suggesting something in the blood helps them mature. Dr Lynn’s team will now try making beta cells beside blood vessels to see if it helps them mature quicker.

Supportive cells line blood vessels

Cells called pericytes line the tiny blood vessels that weave through the pancreas. Professor Limor Landsman from Tel Aviv University has found that pericytes release a molecule that supports beta cells. When Professor Landsman added this molecule to lab-grown beta cells, they matured faster, released more insulin and responded to glucose.

Blood vessel transplants

In a project we funded, Dr Maria Cristina Nostro found that far more transplanted donor islet cells survive in patients when inserted with tiny blood vessels taken from body fat. By transplanting the islets with blood vessels, the team stabilised blood glucose levels in just 1-2 weeks – compared to around five months.

3D printing a functional human pancreas

3D printing involves printing layers of a material (usually plastic) until a whole object is formed. 3D bioprinting is the same process, but the materials being printed are living cells.

Overcoming the problem of squishy cells

Plastic is relatively easy to print in 3D because it is hard and keeps its structure. Unlike plastic, cells are squishy and tend to collapse when they are layered on top of each other in air. Dr Adam Feinberg (an engineer we have previously funded) has developed a supportive gel named FRESH that holds the cells in place. FRESH also feeds them the chemicals they need to grow and mature. At the conference, Dr Feinberg revealed he is now growing more and more cells together with the aim of 3D printing a whole pancreas.

European conference in September

The research community is excitedly awaiting the EASD (European Association for the Study of Diabetes) conference in September. Here, top scientists will share even more ground-breaking developments in type 1 diabetes research – and we will be there to bring you all the highlights.

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