As someone with a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) I know how devastating the condition can be. I also know how challenging it can be to keep it under control and the consequences of failing to do that. Not maintaining healthy blood sugar levels can have a serious impact on the heart, kidney, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels. It can even be fatal.
Right now, controlling T1D means being careful about what you eat, when you eat and how much you eat. It also means regularly checking your blood throughout the day to see if the glucose level is too high or too low. If it’s too high you need to inject insulin; if it’s too low you need to take a fast-acting carbohydrate such as fruit juice or glucose to try and restore it to a healthy level.
That’s why two new approaches to T1D that CIRM has supported are so exciting. They both use small devices implanted under the skin that contain stem cells. The cells can both monitor blood sugar and, if it’s too high, secrete insulin to bring it down.
We sat down with two key members of the Encellin and ViaCyte teams, Dr. Crystal Nyitray and Dr. Manasi Jaiman, to talk about their research, how it works, and what it could mean for people with T1D. That’s in the latest episode of our podcast ‘Talking ‘Bout (re)Generation’.
It’s always gratifying to see research you have helped support go from being an intriguing idea to something with promise to a product that is now the focus of a company. It’s all the more gratifying if the product in question might one day help millions of people battling diabetes.
That’s the case with
a small pouch being developed by a company called Encellin. The pouch is the
brainchild of Tejal Desai, Ph.D., a
professor of bioengineering at UCSF and a CIRM grantee.
“It’s a cell encapsulation device, so this material can essentially protect beta cells from the immune system while allowing them to function by secreting insulin. We are placing stem cell-derived beta cells into the pouch which is then implanted under the skin. The cells are then able to respond to changes in sugar or glucose levels in the blood by pumping out insulin. By placing the device in a place that is accessible we can easily remove it if we have to, but also we can recharge it and put in new cells as well.”
While the pouch was developed in Dr. Desai’s lab, the idea
to take it from a promising item and try to turn it into a real-world therapy
came from one of Dr. Desai’s former students, Crystal Nyitray, Ph.D.
After getting her PhD, Nyitray went to work for the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi. In an article in FierceBiotech she says that’s where she realized that the pouch she had been working on at UCSF had real potential.
“During that time, I started to realize
we really had something, that everything that pharma or biotech was looking at
was something we had been developing from the ground up with those specific
questions in mind,”
So Dr. Nyitray went to work for QB3, the institute created
by UC San Francisco to help startups develop their ideas and get funding. The
experience she gained there gave her the confidence to be the co-founder and
CEO of Encellin.
Dr. Desai is a scientific advisor to Encellin. She says
trying to create a device that contains insulin-secreting cells is not new.
Many previous attempts failed because once the device was placed in the body,
the immune system responded by creating fibrosis or scarring around it which
blocked the ability of the cells to get out.
But she thinks their approach has an advantage over previous
“This is not a new idea, the idea has been around for 40 or
more years but getting it to work is hard. We have a convergence of getting the
right cell types and combining that with our knowledge of immunology and then
the material science where we can design materials at this scale to get the kind
of function that we need.
Dr. Nyitray ““If we can reduce fibrosis, it really
helps the cells get nutrients better, survive better and signal more
effectively. It’s really critical to their success.”
Dr. Desai says the device is still in the early stages of
being tested, but already it’s showing promise.
“We have done testing in animals. Where the company is
taking this is now to see if we can take this to larger animals and then
She says without CIRM’s support none of this would have
“CIRM has been really instrumental in helping us refine the
cell technology piece of it, to get really robust cells and also to support the
development to push the materials, to understand the biology, to really
understand what was happening with the cell material interface. We know we have
a lot of challenges ahead, but we are really excited to see if this could
We are excited too. We are looking forward to seeing what
Encellin does in the coming years. It could change the lives of millions of
people around the world.