On March 22–23, 2011, JDRF brought together more than 40 corporate and academic experts on beta cell encapsulation in order to discuss the most recent progress, and to identify critical gaps, in the field. Recommendations from the workshop will guide JDRF’s next wave of research efforts to close these gaps and move the field forward.
Investigators from the fields of biology, chemistry, and immunology were invited to share perspectives, research advances, and research challenges so that their collective wisdom could accelerate progress in encapsulating islets, the clusters of cells in the pancreas that contain insulin-producing beta cells. They were joined by physicians and biomaterial engineers, scientists who create materials ranging from heart valves and artificial joints to tissue-like materials that shield cells during an autoimmune attack.
“Beta cell encapsulation requires expertise from a wide range of disciplines,” says Julia Greenstein, Ph.D., AVP of cure therapies at JDRF. “We hope that this workshop will stimulate cross-disciplinary collaborations among some of the best scientists in this field, and spur interest in submitting grant applications that will eventually lead to discovering and developing effective encapsulation technologies.”
Beta cell encapsulation focuses on taking islets, which can be derived from human, pig, or stem-cell sources, and protecting them with a physical barrier. The barrier shields these islets from the immune system, while allowing insulin and nutrients to move freely through. Because the barrier physically hides the islets from the immune system, this approach obviates the need to suppress the entire immune system to stem its attack.
One of the key challenges in the field is selecting or creating a material that protects islets from the immune system while keeping them healthy and functioning properly. To date, researchers have only had short-term success, as islets have been shown to survive for only six months in a variety of animal models using existing materials. “The problem is, we don’t know what it is about these materials that is allowing the islets to fail,” says Dan Anderson, Ph.D., a biomaterials engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who attended the workshop. “So now we are tweaking existing materials and testing them on islets to see what it is about these materials that does and does not work; understanding this will allow us to design better materials.”
Despite the challenges of trying to identify encapsulation material that will maintain cells long-term, JDRF believes that the potential benefit of eliminating the need for immunosuppression justifies the investment in encapsulation research. In order to maximize its chances for success, JDRF will be significantly expanding funding opportunities for encapsulation research in the year ahead, while emphasizing and promoting cross-disciplinary interaction.