The cover of the July 2017 issue of the journal STEM CELLS Translation Medicine showcases the latest advance toward a functional cure of insulin-dependent diabetes. Scientists at SymbioCellTech (SCT), a small biotech company in Salt Lake City, developed a technology that combines Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs) with culture-expanded pancreatic islet cells to form three-dimensional cellular clusters, termed “Neo-Islets”. A single dose of Neo-Islets administered into the abdominal cavity provides durable blood sugar control, i.e., insulin-independence, without the need for potentially toxic anti-rejection drugs or encapsulation devices.
Type-1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease in which the patient’s own immune system attacks and destroys the islet cells in the pancreas resulting in the inability of the body to produce insulin. The standard cell therapy for diabetes is islet cell transplantation into the liver; however, this approach has serious drawbacks: (1) it requires the patient to permanently take potentially-toxic immunosuppression drugs, (2) it cannot be scaled up to treat the large number of patients that would benefit from this therapy because up to 5 donor pancreata are required for a single dose, and (3) it is expensive. In order to avoid the need for immunosuppressive agents, researchers have focused on using various devices that encapsulate islets or other insulin-producing cells. These devices, made of specially-formulated materials, are designed to protect against the immune attack yet allow for glucose-sensitive insulin release. Limited success with this technology has been observed in the lab, but most encapsulation devices have failed due to foreign body reactions.