For people living with type 1 diabetes (T1D), establishing insulin independence by implanting insulin-producing beta cells into the body would be life changing. But a challenge to this potential therapy lies in the body’s immune system, which recognizes the implanted beta cells as foreign entities or invaders and subsequently attacks them. Furthermore, the implanted beta cells may be attacked by the underlying beta cell–specific autoimmune process associated with T1D. To overcome this obstacle, JDRF-funded researchers have been working to build a “shield” around the cells in an approach referred to as encapsulation. Now, JDRF is bringing together scientists and researchers from more than 25 institutions to accelerate this technology through its newly formed Encapsulation Consortium.
The inaugural meeting of the JDRF Encapsulation Consortium was held on March 14 in New York City with the purpose of supporting a collaborative group of key players in science, engineering, and medicine to share their research to advance encapsulation technology. The ultimate goal of the consortium is to develop a product that will hide implanted beta cells from the immune system or make the immune system accept the cells and will also provide an environment in which the cells can function normally—sensing a person’s blood-glucose levels and releasing the correct amount of insulin at the appropriate times—to allow people with T1D to live life as if they don’t have the disease.
“JDRF is investing in a diverse portfolio of different approaches and technologies, and we want to continue to build the pipeline of encapsulation technologies,” says Albert Hwa, Ph.D., senior scientific program manager for beta cell therapies at JDRF. “The consortium will facilitate collaboration and sharing of information to drive progress in this area.”
Encapsulation may afford the ability to conquer one of the major obstacles that have limited the access to this treatment to a small population of people with T1D: a shortage of donor pancreases and the need for potentially toxic immunosuppressive drugs to tame the immune responses. “Currently these drugs are used at doses that expose the drug to all tissues in the body. It is possible to use similar drugs in some encapsulation designs but use them only at small concentration local to the transplanted cells. This way the detrimental effect to the rest of the body is minimal,” Dr. Hwa says.
The consortium has set out an aggressive timeline to meet the goal of establishing insulin independence without chronic immunosuppression in humans for a period of 18 months. Milestones have been set, and consortium members will meet monthly to discuss their progress and any new developments. “The intersection of fields such as bioengineering, beta cell biology, and materials science engineering is where groundbreaking advances are most likely to happen,” Dr. Hwa adds.
“JDRF has and is investing in a diverse portfolio of different approaches and technologies,” Dr. Hwa says. “We want to continue to build a pipeline of encapsulation technologies and eventually have approaches in clinical testing that can then move to available therapies, and we are looking to this group to help achieve these goals.”