Get ready for a post with a lot of fancy science words. It can't be helped. That's because if you're going to use pig cells to potentially cure type 1 diabetes, you need a LOT of science.
MicroIslet Inc. is a biotech firm based in San Diego, CA, that ironically declared bankruptcy last year, but is pulling itself up by the bootstraps to realize its transplantation therapy dream. It is now gearing up to launch its first product, MicroIslet-P, which is an experimental method of encapsulating porcine (yes, that means pig) islet cells for transplantation, so that they are NOT killed off by the immune system and are able to take hold and produce insulin in the host's sytem.
Why pig? As we all know, islet cells are in short supply, and it has long been argued that xenotransplantation (transplanting cells from an animal other than a human) would be the key to a proliferation of islet cells to potentially cure type 1 diabetes.
The trouble is that porcine islets (as well as any foreign organ or cells transplanted into the body) are immediately rejected by the host body's immune system. Those who have received an organ transplant or an islet cell transplant are required to stay on a cocktail of immune suppressant drugs for the rest of their lives. And MicroIslet faces an even bigger challenge because these islet cells are not human, which means a risk of "hyperacute rejection" — when the body rejects transplanted tissue more severely because it is from another species. Many companies are working to combat this problem by creating ways to encapsulate the islets some sort of barrier.
What's special about MicroIslet? The company describes its product as "a highly biocompatible biopolymer derived from seaweed." That's fancy science for a barrier designed to allow glucose and oxygen to reach the cell, while at the same time protecting it from immune system attack and cell destruction. Once the newly protected islet cells are transplanted, the body regains euglycemia — the medical term for normal blood sugar control (didn't know there was one, did ya?)
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MicroIslet also believes that their method of encapsulation will help protect the islet cells during harvesting, preservation and transportation, as well as during actual transplantation. This is great news because islet cells are VERY fragile and often many are lost during the prep and transportation processes. Discovering a way to protect them would be a great achievement indeed.
I know I've said this many-a-time before, but this sure sounds promising. One way to evaluate a company's scientific muster is by looking at their management team. MicroIslet's is made up of well-known experts in the biotechnology and life sciences, and their Scientific Advisory Board includes well-respected professors and researchers in the field of biology and immunology, including Dr. David Scharp, who happens to have written circa 200 articles on behalf of the JDRF and NIH.
MicroIslet is currently licensing two U.S. Patents developed at Duke University: #6,303,355 for a method of culturing, cryopreserving and encapsulating pancreatic islet cells; and #6,365,385, for methods of culturing and encapsulating pancreatic islet cells. OK, so they're a little late on their kickoff of human trials (the website cites a start date Q4, 2008), but which really-deep-biotech company pursuing a diabetes cure hasn't been a little overly optimistic at times?
Maybe the bankruptcy and "corporate restructure" had something to do with the slowdown (ya think?) Anyway, let's hope their piggy bank (pun intended) is filling up quick, and that we'll hear more from MicroIslet soon. Xenotransplantation is a very popular theory, yet widely unsupported by many of the diabetes organizations. Wouldn't it be nice to see this company prove them wrong?!