Microcapsules and pancreas cell transplants could conquer type I diabetes

ECE News

Liz Ahlberg Touchstone, Illinois News Bureau
2/13/2018 4:42:11 PM

Story Highlights

  • A new in vitro study by ECE ILLINOIS researchers is advancing the possibility of long-term blood sugar control for patients with type I diabetes without the high risk of surgery or lifelong insulin administration and glucose monitoring.
  • A drug-carrying microsphere within a cell-bearing microcapsule could be the key to transplanting insulin-secreting pig pancreas cells into human patients whose own cells have been destroyed.
  • In the study, the insulin-secreting cells, called islets, showed increased viability and function after spending 21 days inside tiny capsules containing even tinier capsules bearing a drug that makes the cells more resilient to oxygen deprivation.

ECE ILLINOIS professor Kyekyoon 'Kevin' Kim, graduate student Benjamin Lew, and research scientist Hyungsoo Choi developed a method to make it easier to transplant pancreatic islet cells from pigs to treat type I diabetes.  Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
ECE ILLINOIS professor Kyekyoon 'Kevin' Kim, graduate student Benjamin Lew, and research scientist Hyungsoo Choi developed a method to make it easier to transplant pancreatic islet cells from pigs to treat type I diabetes. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Type I diabetes is a chronic condition where the pancreas produces little or no insulin. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure. Treatment focuses on managing and monitoring blood sugar levels with lifelong insulin. Whole pancreas transplantation is another option, but the surgery carries high risks and requires lifelong immunosuppressive medication.

However, a new in vitro study by ECE ILLINOIS researchers is advancing the possibility of long-term blood sugar control without major surgery.

“Sustained exenatide delivery via intracapsular microspheres for improved survival and function of microencapsulated porcine islets” demonstrates how drug-carrying microsphere within a cell-bearing microcapsule could be the key to transplanting insulin-secreting pig pancreas cells into human patients whose own cells have been destroyed by type I diabetes.

In the study, the insulin-secreting cells, called islets, showed increased viability and function after spending 21 days inside tiny capsules containing even tinier capsules bearing a drug that makes the cells more resilient to oxygen deprivation. The results were published in the journal Drug Delivery and Translational Research.

Professor "Kevin" Kyekyoon Kim and Senior Research Scientist Hyungsoo Choi have been exploring ways to transplant pancreatic islets to treat type I diabetes long term, eliminating the need for continual glucose monitoring and insulin injections. However, there are a number of challenges to this approach.

Kyekyoon  Kim
Kyekyoon Kim
“First, you need viable islets that are also functional, so that they secrete insulin when exposed to glucose,” said Kim, the leader of the new study. Islets from humans are scarce, he said, but pig tissue is in abundant supply, and pig insulin has been used to treat diabetes since the 1920s. The pig tissue for this research was procured from the Meat Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

Once islets are isolated from tissue, the next big challenge is to keep them alive and functioning after transplantation.

To keep the transplanted cells from interacting with the recipient’s immune system, they are packaged in tiny, semipermeable capsules. The capsule size and porosity are important to allow oxygen and nutrients to reach the islets while keeping out immune cells.

Hyungsoo  Choi
Hyungsoo Choi
“The first few weeks after transplant are very crucial because these islets need oxygen and nutrients, but do not have blood vessels to provide them,” said Choi. “Most critically, lack of oxygen is very toxic. It’s called hypoxia, and that will destroy the islets.”

Kim and Choi have developed methods of making such microcapsules for various engineering applications and realized they could use the same techniques to make microcapsules for biological applications, such as drug delivery and cell transplants. Their method allows them to use materials of high viscosity, to precisely control the size and aspect ratio of the capsules, and to produce uniformly sized microcapsules with high throughput.

The method developed allows them to make tiny, uniform capsules and control the size, allowing for a capsule-within-a-capsule technique. Image courtesy of Prof. Kim.
The method developed allows them to make tiny, uniform capsules and control the size, allowing for a capsule-within-a-capsule technique. Image courtesy of Prof. Kim.
“For a typical patient you’d need about 2 million capsules. Production with any other method we know cannot meet that demand easily. We’ve demonstrated that we can produce 2 million capsules in a matter of 20 minutes or so,” Kim said.

With such control and high production capacity, the researchers were able to make tiny microspheres that are loaded with a drug that improves cell viability and that function in hypoxic conditions. The microspheres were designed to provide an extended release of the drug over 21 days. Researchers packaged pig islets and the microspheres together within microcapsules, and over the next three weeks compared them with encapsulated islets that didn’t have the drug-containing microspheres.

After 21 days, around 71 percent of the islets packaged with the drug-releasing microspheres remained viable, while only about 45 percent of the islets encapsulated on their own survived. The cells with the microspheres also maintained their ability to produce insulin in response to glucose at a significantly higher level than those without the microspheres.

Next, the researchers hope to test their microsphere-within-a-microcapsule technique in small animals before looking toward larger animal or human trials.

ECE ILLINOIS graduate students Benjamin Young Lew and In-Yong Kim were co-authors of the paper. Kim and Choi are members of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at Illinois, and Kim also is an affiliate professor of bioengineering, materials science and engineering, nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering (NPRE), and the director of the Thin Film and Charged Particle Research Laboratory. This work was carried out in part in the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory Central Facilities and Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

The paper “Sustained exenatide delivery via intracapsular microspheres for improved survival and function of microencapsulated porcine islets” is available online. DOI: 10.1007/s13346-018-0484-x

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