A new 'sense and respond' technology could see to it
that people living with type 1 diabetes can 'forget about it' -
meet the researcher whose clear goal is to solve the complex
management of diabetes for patients once and for all.
The new research was awarded a $US2.8 million grant to
create hydrogel-encapsulated cells that, when placed into a
patient, sense blood glucose levels and produce insulin on
The encapsulated cell factories "fly under the radar" of
the immune system to avoid detection and rejection, protecting and
supporting their pancreatic islet cells.
William Marsh Rice University bioengineer Omid Veiseh (an inventor
of 20 pending or awarded patents) ultimately wants patients
with Type 1 diabetes to forget about it.
That's the goal his lab has declared with funding support from the US
National Institutes of Health.
The agency has awarded Veiseh's lab a prestigious four-year,
$2.8 million grant to design hydrogel-encapsulated cells
that, when placed into a patient, sense blood glucose levels and
produce insulin on demand.
bioengineer Omid Veiseh, left, with graduate student Siavash
Parkhideh, is leading an effort to develop gel-encapsulated cells
for patients with diabetes that monitor blood glucose and release
insulin when needed. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
These on-board drug factories would eliminate the need for
patients to persistently monitor their blood glucose and administer
"Our hope is that one day patients can be insulin-independent
and not have to think about diabetes," said Veiseh, an assistant
professor of bioengineering who joined Rice in 2017.
"We want to get to the point where they get the treatment and
live their lives normally."
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, where the body's own
immune system inadvertently destroys the insulin-producing beta
cells of the pancreas.
Replacing the beta cells with protection from the immune system
is a potential cure for many patients afflicted with this
condition, Veiseh said.
To that end, his lab at Rice's BioScience Research
Collaborative is developing thousands of distinct hydrogel
capsules that can protect and support pancreatic
A major challenge is developing hydrogel formulations which can
hide these cells from the host immune system.
The lab's solution involves the synthesis of 7,000 variations of
hydrogels, each carrying islet cells and an individual bar
These will allow the lab to inject multiple types of hydrogels
into a small number of mice for in vivo testing. (In vivo
tests are conducted in live organisms; in vitro experiments are
conducted in test tubes and the like.)
"We can't do this in vitro, only in vivo, but it would take an
army to test thousands of individual animals," Veiseh said.
Using the innovative bar coding technique, batches of different
cell/capsule combinations can be implanted and those that survive
the animal's immune system can be identified based on their bar
The codes themselves represent a unique approach, he said.
Rather than physically marking each cell - hard to do in a jelly
- or using chemical means that could induce an immune response, the
researchers will encase surrogate cells along with the islet
These surrogates are
human umbilical vein endothelial cells. Because they're culled
from thousands of donated umbilical cords and have their donors'
distinct genomes, they can be easily identified through
That will let the lab drastically cut the amount of time it will
take to test all of its variants.
"That's going to be the first pass, and it will allow us to
whittle down those 7,000 formulations to a manageable number,"
"Once we discover new leads, we will test those more rigorously
to evaluate their ability to house and protect islet cells, and the
cells' ability to survive and correct blood glucose."
The capsules will also have to ward off fibrosis, the
body's tendency to wall off invading cells by building scar
Members of Rice's Veiseh Lab include, from left: Siavash
Parkhideh, Alen Trubelja, Samira Aghlara-Fotovat, Sudip Mukherjee,
Omid Veiseh, Maria Ruocco, Christian Schreib and Michael Doerfert.
Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Veiseh has been developing novel materials that enable
cell-based therapies for close to a decade.
He's a co-founder of Sigilon Therapeutics, a biotech company
working to commercialize this approach for treatment of various
He noted the development of implantable, drug-making cells is
one of this year's
10 "breakthrough" technologies listed by the World
While some approaches require occasional or even frequent cell
injections, Veiseh's clear goal is to solve the complex management
of diabetes for patients once and for all.
"When I started my postdoctoral research (at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology), I had a misperception that diabetes was
not that big of a problem because we have insulin. But when I
realized the challenges people face, particularly children, I was
really inspired," he said. "
My team and I are committed to making a transformative impact
How the technology works
- Creates a new class of implantable cell-based technologies that
will "fly under the radar" of the immune system to avoid detection
- Genetically engineered allogeneic human cells are encapsulated
to deliver a precisely engineered cell factory into the body to
"sense and respond" to a need for insulin.
- Provides a unique, controllable and dose-adjustable approach to
delivering protein therapeutics that do not trigger the immune
system in the body.
- Proprietary cells are engineered ex vivo to produce high levels
of protein at a controlled rate without the risk of introducing a
gene construct into a patient's own cells.
- Allows for developing long term programmable implants that can
be upgraded when required or removed if desirable to provide