New transplant technique could improve outcomes for type 1 diabetics

In innovative technique, combining a new hydrogel material with blood vessel growth protein, could increase transplantation success rates with insulin-producing islet cells in patients with type 1 diabetes. Findings are published in the latest issue of Science Advances.

The transplantation of pancreatic islets cells could be a feasible treatment. Current methods, however, are ineffective, with 60 percent of cells dying immediately after transplantation. By combining a new hydrogel material and protein that increase blood vessel growth, researchers hope to improve success rates for type 1 diabetic patients as well as helping patients who have had the pancreas removed.

"We have engineered a material that can be used to transplant islets and promote vascularization and survival of the islets to enhance their function," said Andrés García, a Regents' Professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "We are very excited about this because it could have immediate patient benefits if this proves successful in humans."

Along with Jessica Weaver, a Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher and first author on the study, García used a polymer hydrogel material to deliver cells into a vascular endothelial growth factor protein to encourage the growth of blood vessels in transplanted cells.

"The transplanted islets need a lot of oxygenation and a connection to the body's circulatory system to sense the glucose levels and transport the insulin," noted García, who is also the Rae and Frank H. Neely Endowed Chair in Mechanical Engineering. "In addition to protecting the islets, our engineered material promotes the formation of new blood vessels to nourish the cells."

In testing the new technique on diabetic mice, researchers inserted the cells in the liver, under the skin and mesentery regions of the intestines and a fat pad in the abdomen. For 100 days, the technique was able to develop blood vessels and the cells grew into their designated location.

“We were able to study the transplant sites in parallel and really look at the pros and cons of each to compare the survival rates of the cells in each area," said Weaver. "Islet cells are very precious because we get so few from each donor. We need them all to survive to help a patient with type 1 diabetes get off insulin."