New technology aims to create insulin producing islets in the lab

by Barbara Hewitt on May 26, 2016

New technology that can create islets, the organoids responsible for insulin production, in a laboratory could result in new treatments for type 1 diabetics without the need for daily injections.

The University of Aberdeen in Scotland and the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGT) have joined together to develop a novel technology which they believe could bring the option of an islet transplant to thousands more people.

Currently in the UK, only 30 to 50 can receive an islet transplant each year due to the low availability of suitable donor organs and the difficulty involved in extracting the islets.


The new Islexa project will use technology that works by reprogramming donated pancreatic tissue into fully functional islets which will significantly increase the number of patients who can receive the treatment.

An islet transplant can give people with type 1 diabetes who cannot control their blood sugar levels effective, long term glucose control without the need for insulin.

“This is a really exciting technology that has the potential to bring life changing benefits to these patients. We are delighted to be forming Islexa with the partners we’ve worked with so far on this project. The collaboration has already delivered promising results and the formation of Islexa will accelerate the development of these lab grown islets and ultimately get this potential treatment to thousands of patients,” said Keith Thompson, CGT chief executive officer and Islexa director.

Professor Kevin Docherty of the University of Aberdeen explained that the technology is based on converting pancreatic tissue into functional islets. “This has an advantage over the use of stem cells as source material, since at the moment they generate only the insulin producing beta cells,” he said.

“Islets are organoids that produce multiple hormones, including insulin, and donated islets are already effectively treating severe cases of type 1 diabetes. Having a hugely expanded supply of lab grown islets will enable us to significantly extend this established clinical treatment,” he pointed out.

The creation of Islexa follows successful results in pre-clinical studies on the technology and the company will hold future IP rights of the islet technology. The company will initially continue to focus on further pre-clinical development of the protocol for reprogramming the pancreas tissue into functional islets. The next stage is to take the technology into clinical trials in the next few years.

“Islet transplantation can transform the lives of patients with type I diabetes, and in some cases can result in long term freedom from insulin injections with excellent glucose control,” said John Casey, consultant transplant surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and lead clinician for the Islet Transplantation Programme in Scotland.

“This exciting collaboration between the Scottish Islet Programme, world leading scientists and the UK life sciences industry will allow us to rapidly develop the technology and treat more patients, more effectively,” he added.


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