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Scientists in California think they have found a way to treat diabetes without regular injections of insulin. The technique involves implanting living human cells into a patient, and the cells can deliver insulin when it's needed. NPR's Joe Palca went to San Francisco to talk to the researchers about their big idea.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Most people with Type 1 diabetes have to measure their blood sugar and periodically inject themselves with insulin. Companies have designed clever machines to automate that process. But diabetes researcher Crystal Nyitray didn't want to use a machine to treat diabetes. She wanted to use something better - living cells.
CRYSTAL NYITRAY: Cells are the ultimate smart machine.
PALCA: Nyitray works on a kind of cell called an islet cell. These are cells in the pancreas. Some of these cells are biologically preprogrammed to detect blood sugar levels and pump out just the right amount of insulin. In people with Type 1 diabetes, a crucial subset of these cells is missing. Nyitray says if there were some way to give healthy islet cells to diabetics...
NYITRAY: Then you could really use the ultimate smart machine as a therapy.
PALCA: But there's a problem. If you simply inject the cells into someone, they'll be seen as foreign invaders and will be rejected by that person's immune system. Nyitray thought she had a way around this problem. She'd enclose the cells in a flexible membrane. The membrane would let the cells sense blood sugar and release insulin, but protect the cells from the immune system.
NYITRAY: I think of it kind of like if you're sitting in a house and you have the window open with a screen. So you can feel the breeze of the air outside and smell everything, but the bugs and the flies aren't able to get through because you have the screen in place.
PALCA: Nyitray took her idea for building a protective home for her cells to her graduate school adviser at the University of California, San Francisco, an experienced researcher named Tejal Desai. Desai gave her younger colleague some sobering advice.
TEJAL DESAI: I said, don't do it.
PALCA: Desai says other researchers have tried to build synthetic homes to transplant cells into people, but there were always problems. One of the biggest problems was getting the cells to stay alive and happy in their new home. Desai says Nyitray showed that her flexible membrane solved that problem by creating an environment more like the pancreas.
DESAI: When she showed me the experiment where she took islet cells in our devices and showed that the ones in the devices actually pumped out more insulin and were alive longer, that was what convinced me.
PALCA: Desai and Nyitray have now shown their approach works in lab animals. In fact, the results were so promising that Nyitray formed a company.
NYITRAY: Our next big step is to demonstrate this in humans. Our hope as this moves forward is to, you know, put this in the clinic in the next couple of years.
PALCA: Diabetes researcher Alice Tomei is at the University of Miami. She says Nyitray's approach seems promising.
ALICE TOMEI: But until you test them in humans then you can't tell, you know, if they work or not.
PALCA: If it does work, it will be a boon for patients and vindication for those who believe that cells are indeed the ultimate smart machine. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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