December 12, 2012 — Engineers design things. They apply their respective expertise in physics, chemistry, computer science, biology and more to build structures, devices, systems and materials to solve real-world problems. At the Diabetes Research Institute, tissue and bioengineers work to overcome the hurdles in cell replacement therapy and play a key role in our effort to discover a biological cure.
Tissue engineering uses a combination of cells, engineering principles, biomaterials and biochemical factors to improve or replace biological function. Today, with advances in materials science and cell-based therapies, tissue engineering has entered a whole new era and one that is central to many life-saving clinical applications.
The DRI’s tissue and bioengineering teams are at the center of one of the most important initiatives underway at the Institute – the development of a mini organ that mimics the native pancreas. Working together with other DRI colleagues, like immunologists, molecular and cell biologists, transplant surgeons, clinical researchers and others, the team is focusing on several pieces of the puzzle that will help to overcome the challenges faced with current islet transplantation procedures.
Among these is the need to identify an optimal site within the body to house transplanted cells. DRI scientists and collaborators have already shown that transplanted islets can restore natural insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes, and that the cells can function long term. Islets are currently transplanted into the liver, but this site is not ideal for a number of reasons. That’s where tissue engineering comes in. The DRI team is engineering new sites within the body to house insulin-producing cells, among them a bioengineered, sponge-like scaffold. In fact, clinical trials using the scaffold are expected to begin next year.
But an alternate site must do more than simply house transplanted cells. The native pancreatic environment provides critical levels of nutrients and other factors that sustain healthy islet function. For example, islets need an abundance of oxygen, so DRI researchers are developing and testing special biomaterials to supply the cells with this vital element at the time of and immediately post-transplant.
Islets also need protection from the immune system. So the DRI teams are developing special coatings to encase the cells with an ultra-thin protective barrier. The researchers are also working with biomaterials to deliver low-dose anti-rejection drugs locally, at the site of the transplant, instead of throughout the entire body.
Recent progress in these areas and more were presented by several DRI scientists last month, including Peter Buchwald, Ph.D., Maria Coronel, Ph.D., Kerim Gattas-Asfura and Jessica Weaver, at the 2012 Biomedical Engineering Society Conference in Atlanta, GA.
Lori Weintraub, APR