Beta cells

Making transplanted beta cells feel at home

Professor Francesca Spagnoli, Dr Rocio Sancho and Professor Molly Steven’s Beta Cell Therapy Programme Grant project

Professor Francesca Spagnoli in the lab

Professor Francesca Spagnoli and Dr Rocio Sancho at King’s College London, together with Professor Molly Stevens at University of Oxford, hope to unlock the full potential of transplants of insulin-making beta cells. They’ll innovate ways to keep cells safe from harm once they’re transplanted into someone with type 1, so we can move closer to the day when beta cell transplants can free people from the relentless task of managing type 1 diabetes.

Background to the research project

Scientists are using stem cells to develop treatments to replace the beta cells that have been destroyed in people living with type 1 diabetes. Stem cells have the special ability to shape-shift into other types of cells in the body, including beta cells.

Small clinical trials of stem cell-turned beta cell transplants are now underway and are showing early promise. But after being transplanted into people with type 1 diabetes, new beta cells struggle to survive and gradually lose their ability to make enough insulin and tightly control blood sugar levels.

Using expertise from different fields including biology, immunology and engineering Professor Spagnoli, Dr Sancho and Professor Stevens will lead a team to tackle these challenges and give lab-grown beta cells the tools they need to survive and do their job after transplant.

What will the team do in this project?

The team will explore ways to both create tougher beta cells that can better withstand their post-transplant environment, and to make this environment friendlier.

    1. They’ll replicate the supportive environment found in a healthy pancreas by coating their lab-grown beta cells with protective gels that can help them stay safe and strong.
    2. They’ll use nanoparticle technology to deliver ingredients that can give the cells a survival boost after transplantation and protect them from an immune system attack.
    3. They’ll develop a transplantation device that beta cells can live inside. This protective ‘cage’ will provide the cells with the right levels of oxygen they need to survive and make them more resistant to their hostile surroundings. They’ll transplant this device containing their reinforced beta cells into rats with type 1 diabetes to investigate if the cells manage to survive long-term and produce enough insulin to control blood sugar levels.

How will this research help people with type 1 diabetes?

Creating the ideal conditions that keep transplanted beta cells alive and kicking could help us move quicker towards a new era in type 1 diabetes, where people are free from the burden of taking insulin, the fear of hypos and complications, and the mental load of self-managing their blood sugar levels.

Professor Francesca Spagnoli said:

“The Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge funding means we can explore new avenues in diabetes research. We’ll be able to start moving some of our discoveries closer to clinical applications and drive improvements in cell replacement therapies, which could ultimately cure type 1 diabetes.”