How UF made a pancreas

Researchers create bioartificial pancreas to extend lives of diabetics

By Czerne M. Reid

UF researcher Nicholas Simpson (with undergraduate student Michelle Corrado) and colleagues developed a bioartificial pancreas./Photos by Jesse S. Jones

In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas fails to produce insulin, a hormone vital for regulating blood sugar levels. For decades, researchers have sought — with varying levels of success — a way to compensate for the loss of function and cure the disease.

Now, College of Medicine researcher Nicholas Simpson, Ph.D., and colleagues have taken the quest a step further by devising a cell-based artificial pancreas that ultimately could help improve quality of life for people who have diabetes.

“The main goal is to try to find a cure for type 1 diabetes,” Simpson said.

Type 1 diabetes causes a range of complications, including blindness, kidney damage and cardiovascular disease. People with the disease have to constantly monitor their blood glucose levels and receive frequent shots of insulin.

There has been promising research on digital devices that can sense blood glucose levels and deliver insulin when needed, but electronics glitches could lead to too-high doses of insulin, which could be fatal.

Other approaches involve transplanting the pancreas or insulin-producing beta cells, but that requires organ donors. In addition, transplant recipients require lifelong immunosuppression to improve the chances of success, and rejection continues to be a problem. It has become clear that transplanted cells must be shielded from the immune system in order to remain viable.

“If someone were to create a barrier technology in which the cells could be placed, that would be a way of potentially overcoming what has been a tremendously difficult task to achieve,” said Mark Atkinson, Ph.D., an eminent scholar in the College of Medicine department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine, and co-director of the UF Diabetes Center of Excellence.

That’s just what Simpson, a research associate professor in the College of Medicine division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, and his team have devised.

The small, circular, transparent device consists of insulin-secreting cells trapped inside an inert polymeric material.

The bioartificial pancreas, a small, circular, see-through device for which the researchers have filed a patent, consists of insulin-secreting cells encased inside a nurturing biomaterial and surrounded by an inert polymeric material.

A coil incorporated into the device allows non-invasive monitoring using magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopic techniques.

In laboratory studies, surgically implanting the device into the abdomens of diabetic mice reversed high blood sugar and prolonged survival. Animals who were not given the implant succumbed rapidly to the disease, dying within five to 15 days. Treated animals lived much longer — up to three months in some cases. One animal’s pancreas even showed evidence of regeneration of insulin-producing cells.

Since the bioartificial pancreas also can be used to sustain mice with elevated blood sugars, it could allow researchers to study the long-term effects of diabetes on various organs and systems such as the eyes, kidneys and cardiovascular system.

Over time and with many more studies, the technique could find application in humans, not only for type 1 diabetes, but perhaps for type 2, which affects more people.

“These things take time,” Atkinson said. “We’ve known about insulin for 90 years, we’ve been doing transplants for 30 years and none of these things is a cure yet, so this could, very well, be a worthwhile effort.”

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