Those anti-rejection drugs are a problem. They take a toll on the transplanted cells and the entire body, making it more susceptible to other diseases.
“We have to take the next step, now that we’ve proved that we can transplant these cells. How can we make them survive longer? How can we not use the anti-rejection drugs?” said Dr. Cherie Stabler, associate professor of biomedical engineering and surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and director of the tissue engineering laboratory at the Diabetes Research Institute.
She and Ricordi are very excited about creating capsules for the transplanted cells to protect them from the body’s immune system. On the surface of cells, there are antigens, which Stabler compared to flags. Every patient would have a different pattern. “When you have a pattern that’s different, the immune system recognizes that’s not my flag, so it attacks it,” she said. “We take the islet and we encapsulate it in a material to hide that flag.”
Currently researchers are experimenting with two primary materials: alginate found in seaweed and jello-like material already used to encapsulate drugs to improve delivery.
One problem, Stabler said, is shrinking the capsule to the right size. Current encapsulations is used at the micro-level; for cells, it’s needed at smaller level, currently it’s like putting a person inside a football field. That deprives the cells of nutrients like oxygen. “We have very promising results in preclinical models, we’re very excited about that,” Stabler said.
In addition, Ricordi is poised to start work with other researchers, including Dr. Suzanne Ildstad at the University of Louisville, to complete transplants without the use of anti-rejection drugs. The idea is to introduce the immune system of the donor, with the bone marrow cells, to the recipient. “This could be ... I don’t want to say the ‘c’ word. But if it works, in two years we could say ‘ta-da’ ” Ricordi said.
Ultimately, they want to help people like Kelvin Bacon, 45, who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 29 years. Bacon is a patient at Jefferson Reaves Sr. Health Center in Overtown, one of Jackson Health System’s primary care clinics, where Bacon has learned tools, like diet tips, to manage the disease. He still needs insulin injections every day and checks his blood sugar levels three or four times a day. He had heard about th possibility of transplants.
“I wish they would move forward with that,” Bacon said. “I know it would be beneficial, there are a lot of diabetics.”