Islexa to grow islets in lab to make transplants available to more Type I diabetes patients

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Insulin

A new UK company plans to grow pancreatic islets in the lab to enable more Type I diabetes suffers to receive transplants.

Islexa – a joint venture set up by The Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGT) and the University of Aberdeen – is a developing a technology that can convert pancreatic tissue into fully functioning islets.

Islet transplantation has been used to treat severe Type 1 diabetes since the early 1990s​ with varying degrees of success. One hurdle is transplant rejection which, despite ongoing research efforts​ can only be prevented using side-effect heavy immunosuppressive drugs.

Another problem is that the cells often die during transplantation, which can mean recipients need several transplants.

The other major challenge is the shortage of donor islets.

Approximately 320,000 people in the UK have type I diabetes, around 10% of whom suffer the regular, life-threatening hypoglycaemic attacks for which transplantation is the ideal treatment.

However, according to Islexa, only 30 to 50 people receive transplants each year due to the lack of available islets. 

Cell production

Islexa is not the first organisation to try and reduce the reliance on donated islets. Several groups​ have converted stem cells into insulin producing beta cells​; however, to date none has made a full functioning islet.

This is a problem according to Kevin Docherty from the University of Aberdeen, who explained that in healthy people “islets are organoids that produce multiple hormones, including insulin.”

Rather than using stem cells, Islexa’s approach is to convert – or “reprogramme” – pancreatic cells into functioning islets.

A CGT spokesperson "we use a viral vector to reprogramme the tissue into an islet structure."

Preclinical studies​ conducted on the cells to date have been successful.

The spokesperson also told us initial islet production for further preclinical studies will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS).

She added that: “When it comes to manufacturing for trial, the company will look at the options when it gets to that stage.​”

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