Irvine scientist works on transplant to help diabetes patients

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A stem cell scientist at UC Irvine hopes in the next few years to be able to test a new type of transplant for Type-I diabetes patients.

You control Type II diabetes with diet, exercise and medication.

You control Type I the same way, plus frequent insulin injections. You can’t live without those injections. That’s because with Type I diabetes, your pancreas doesn’t make insulin.

UC Irvine scientist Jonathan Lakey is trying to fix that. He’s working on a type of islet cell transplant that uses a patch-like device to put the cells on the pancreas.

Islet cells make insulin. If the research is successful, the device could be used to treat Type I diabetes.

"This device is derived from seaweed," says Lakey. "It’s a semi-permeable membrane so that certain drugs and certain things can pass through – so glucose, sugars, water, salts can freely pass across this membrane, but big things like anti-bodies, things that are involved in destroying the grafts are blocked. And we can adjust the size of the pores chemically and that allows us to be able to keep the cells alive while still being able to protect them."

This approach isn’t like islet cell transplants that have been tried on more than 2,000 people worldwide.

Lakey says those transplants require the patients to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives.

"Basically, an anti-rejection drug in general is a drug that blocks the body from fighting and destroying the islet cells or the transplanted graft," Lakey explains. "So those patients are susceptible to infections, to pneumonias, to chronic diseases, chronic ailments as a result of their body not being able to properly fight an infection."

But with Lakey’s new device – which UCI researchers are testing on animals – doctors can block the antibodies from attacking the transplant. That means there’s no need for anti-rejection medication.

But there is a need for islet cells. And there’s some worry that there aren’t enough donors for transplants.

That’s why Lakey is working with stem cells to see if they can be manipulated to become islet cells.

That brings us back to his islet cell "device." It looks more like a piece of skin than a "medical device." If something goes wrong, you can remove it and bring all the transplanted cells with it.

Lakey says that’s important when you work with stem cells.

"A lot of challenges in stem cell therapy is that the cells convert into tumors. And so with this type of device, we can remove the cells safely and effectively," Lakey says.

He says for now, they’re focusing their research on Type I diabetes.

"The goal down the line is that if we can get enough cells and an unlimited source of cells, then we can look at Type II diabetics because there’s a higher proportion of Type II diabetics that are converting into Type I diabetics and having to take insulin injections," Lakey says.

That wave of diabetes is the price of an American population that eats more and exercises less. It’s also turning into the country’s biggest public health problem – and one that demands research like Jonathan Lakey’s islet cell transplant device.

He says his UCI research team hopes to move into human trials of the device within three years.

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