Type 1 diabetes affects over a million people in the United States. It’s an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks and kills insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, which leads to excess sugar in the blood and serious health problems. People with type 1 diabetes can’t survive without insulin injections. Restoring these insulin-producing cells and protecting them from the immune system could mitigate or even eradicate the effects of the disease—but how can researchers protect cells from an immune system which has labeled them as pathogens?
Minglin Ma, Biological and Environmental Engineering, is designing and optimizing materials and devices that could implant and protect insulin-producing cells to treat type 1 diabetes. The devices, nanofiber-enabled encapsulation devices (NEEDs), are made of nanofibers that are electro-spun into membranes. These membranes can encapsulate and protect the cells to provide a stable release of insulin. The membranes are strong, with tight pore structures to protect the cells inside, but they also have a degree of porosity, allowing the transfer of insulin and other necessary molecules.
Ma’s group is now working to improve the safety, biocompatibility, functionality and translatability of the devices for what Ma hopes will be eventual use in patients. The research is backed by pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, the number one producer of insulin in the world.