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Penn Medicine researchers are attempting to transplant insulin-producing cells through the skin. Credit: Maryam Alausa

After a promising study by Penn researchers, a cure for type 1 diabetes appears to be closer to reality.

A research team led by Penn scientists successfully transplanted insulin-producing cells into multiple animal models, PhillyVoice reported. In type 1 diabetes, beta cells in clusters called islets cannot regulate blood sugar levels by producing insulin, PhillyVoice reported. 

Past attempts to transplant cells usually involved infusing islets in the liver or the thymus. According to Philly Voice, these infusions have shown complications such as a high level of early islet loss, bleeding, and clotting. The new study, however, transplanted the cells through the skin. Although transplanting under the skin has been considered safer, it usually leads to even greater beta cell loss, PhillyVoice reported.

Penn researchers created a mixture of molecules that replicate the environment of the pancreas, where beta cells normally grow. This appears to allow beta cells to survive where they would normally not, making skin injection of the cells an option, PhillyVoice reported.

Researchers tested this method in a diabetic mouse model. Those that received the cells with the replicated pancreas environment had stable blood sugar levels within a day and held healthier blood sugar levels for months, while those without it failed to function, PhillyVoice reported.

Macaque monkeys who were injected through the skin with the replicated environment were also found to have stable blood sugar for over two years after injection, PhillyVoice reported. The experiments appeared to work on mice regardless of whether the beta cells came from their own bodies or from humans and pigs. 

Humans receiving this treatment would receive transplant cells from other humans, so they would need to take immunosuppressive drugs indefinitely to avoid rejection of donor cells, PhillyVoice reported.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, however, are working to induce immune tolerance of donor cells, which could decrease or eradicate the need for immunosuppressant drugs. 

“Our study is the first that reliably and safely induces lasting immune tolerance of transplants in nonhuman primates,” senior author Bernhard Hering told the University of Minnesota Medical School News in August 2019. “It would open an entirely new era in transplant medicine.”

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