As many as 1.6 million Americans are living with type 1 diabetes – an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin.
Insulin is what helps our bodies control blood sugar levels and without it, people are forced to manage their type 1 diabetes with insulin injections and medications. Now, there’s new hope that could replace the monitors and pumps for good.
Sydnie Stephens-Broussard is a busy 12-year-old.
“She does 16 hours of gymnastics, five hours of volleyball, four hours of track and field, four hours of lacrosse, and then, an hour of swim,” Sydnie’s mom, Dee Dee Stephens-Broussard explains.
She does all of this while managing her type 1 diabetes.
Sydnie explains how one of her pumps works.
“It gives me insulin when I’m high.”
Sydnie monitors her glucose levels with her smartphone, and now, bioengineers at Rice University are working on a new implant that would replace these monitors.
“We hope that we can have the body regulate its own blood glucose,” a bioengineer at Rice University, Omid Veiseh, tells Ivanhoe.
In type 1 diabetes, a person’s own immune system attacks and kills insulin-producing beta cells within the pancreas. Now, researchers are growing beta stem cells in the lab.
Veiseh adds, “We want to use these cells and combine them with innovative tissue engineering strategies that protect them from the hosting immune system.”
A 3D printed hydrogel scaffold protects the cells that are implanted in a patient’s stomach area.
“This mesh keeps the immune cells out and at the same time, nutrients and oxygen, as well as the insulin, can diffuse in and out of these biomaterial constructs,” Veiseh further explains.
Allowing the body to create and regulate its own insulin.
Sydnie says, “My hope about diabetes is, even if there isn’t a cure, that the technology gets better every year.”
So far, the implant has only been tested in mice. Researchers at Rice hope to move it into human trials in the next few years. Each implant would contain half a billion beta cells, which is the same amount we are all born with, but in type 1 diabetes, those cells have been completely destroyed. Researchers believe the implants would need to be replaced every five years.