Under the skin found to be a good place for insulin producing cells transplantation

by Barbara Hewitt on August 18, 2017

The space under our skin is being looked at by scientists as the best place to transplant healthy insulin producing pancreatic cells for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

It is well known that insulin making beta cells, located in regions of the pancreas known as pancreatic islets, are damaged in people with type 1 diabetes and implanting healthy new cells could restore insulin function, but it’s hard to get them in the right place.


The new study, led by researchers in the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), involved transplanting healthy pancreatic cells under the skin to produce insulin for blood glucose regulation.

‘The skin has the advantage of being readily accessible. It also presents fewer hazards than other transplantation sites,’ said Michael Sefton, a senior researcher and a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry at the IBBME.

Lead author Alexander Vlahos explained that pancreatic islets are scattered throughout the pancreas in between other pancreatic cells that secrete digestive enzymes. ‘This makes it impractical to try and deliver islets to the pancreas. You would most likely be delivering it to a region of the pancreas that is secreting these enzymes,’ he said.

He pointed out that other sites such as the abdominal cavity and liver aren’t much better and they are considered hostile environments that can damage the new cells, resulting in loss of function.

‘The accessible location of the skin makes islet transplantation a lot more manageable, especially if the patient responds negatively to the donor cells. The space under the skin has a large area so that it can support many islets, which is necessary for this approach,’ said Vlahos.

Vlahos pursued the idea of transplanting pancreatic islets under the skin because the current method of implanting into the liver requires too many donor cells. ‘You need to overshoot the quantity of islets when injecting into the liver because you lose about 60 per cent of the transplanted cells within the first 48 hours. That amount of islets requires two to three donors for each recipient,’ he added.

In the test healthy pancreatic islets were injected under the skin and the researchers found that normal blood sugar levels could be restored within 21 days, provided they created blood vessels at the same time. When the islet transplants were removed, glucose levels returned to diabetic levels.

‘Pancreatic islets comprise approximately 1% of the pancreas, but require 15% to 20% of the blood flow to the organ. We needed to ensure adequate blood flow to the islets in order for this to work,’ Vlahos said.

The scientists hope that the positive results are the beginning of a much bigger picture. The next phase of the research will involve engineering the blood vessel network first and then injecting fewer islets into the already vascularized tissue.

‘A well-vascularized environment will allow more of the cells to survive and function within the host, reducing the need for multiple donors per patient,’ said Sefton.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DiabetesForum.com Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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