A prospective new diabetes treatment holds promise for someday replacing daily insulin injections for patients. The new cell-based therapy has been shown to successfully regulate blood sugar levels in diabetic mice, by implanting a porous capsule of genetically engineered cells under the skin. The cells release insulin as needed, automatically. In the mice who were treated with the cell-based therapy, blood sugar levels remained normal for a period of several weeks after treatment, prospectively offering patients an alternative to regular insulin injections. The researchers are hoping for a clinical trial license to test the therapy in human patients with the next two years.

The treatment would provide a new alternative for patients with type 1 diabetes, and for those with cases of type 2 diabetes that call for insulin injections.

The research, published in Science, was led by Martin Fussenegger, at the ETH university in Basel, Switzerland. Fussenger noted that “By 2040, every tenth human on the planet will suffer from some kind of diabetes, that’s dramatic. We should be able to do a lot better than people measuring their glucose.”

He said that if the treatment was approved for humans, diabetes patients could use implants which need to be replaced three times a year, instead of daily insulin injections that do an imperfect job of controlling blood sugar levels. Incomplete control of blood sugar levels can sometimes lead to eye, nerve, and heart damage.

Previous attempts to innovate diabetes treatment have focused on efforts to develop artificial pancreatic cells from the stem cells of patients. This approach presents numerous challenges, including difficulty manufacturing cells on a large enough scale for clinical use, and a tendency of these cells to die off when introduced into patient’s bodies, says Fussenegger.

He noted, “They are prima donnas in the cellular context.”

The new research tried a new strategy that involved re-engineering kidney cells to function in the role of pancreatic cells, by introducing genes to make the cells sensitive to glucose levels and to allow the cell to yield insulin when necessary.

“We believed we needed a more robust cell type if you go for cell-based therapies,” said Fussenegger.

The study found that these repurposed cells were able to outperform pancreatic cells at regulating blood sugar levels in mice. The mice remained healthy three weeks after the implant.

The implanted cells were encased in a porous capsule that protected them from the mouse immune system, yet still allowed insulin to be pumped out into the rest of the body. This approach would mean that human patients could use cells that are not specifically genetically matched, allowing for production of the frozen capsules on a large scale.

The researchers created a start-up aimed at commercializing the technique to be available on the market with ten years.

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