Fascinating research by a young woman!

Yesterday I toured the research lab of Dr. Tejal Desai, on the UCSF SoMa campus. Dr. Desai's team is researching islet cell encapsulation, with the eventual goal of implanting "protected" cells into people with diabetes to restore blood sugar auto-regulation. Hey! I want that!

I already knew a wee bit about the idea: you take insulin-producing cells, coat them in plastic (or some such substance) that's specially made to let glucose and oxygen in and insulin out, but not trip the autoimmune attack that created the diabetes to begin with, and voila! you're cured (sort of). This was considered a very exciting prospect about 15 years ago, but fell by the wayside due to a lack of success in identifying a workable coating. Much hope was placed in alginate coatings (yeah, algae), but they degraded quickly when implanted (in animals) and the islet cells died.

Enter Dr. Desai, and this fascinating discovery: cells not only require a particular chemical environment in order to thrive, but also a particular geographical environment.

She described it to me thusly: your body is essentially a system of scaffolding that holds all its cells in place, and the precise shape and structure of that scaffolding in any particular spot affects the growth and activity of the cells housed in that spot.

What's this mean for islet encapsulation? It means that we can't just coat them in goo and inject them someplace, because they need to be housed within a specific extracellular structure in order to do their work. Dr. Desai and her collaborators are figuring out exactly what this structure needs to be.

I got to see and hold some experimental encasements yesterday. They look like tiny metal boxes with reservoirs inside and porous "windows". These windows are actually the porous memberanes through which communication will occur with the extracellular environment. In addition to researching the optimum structure for these encasements, the lab members are also working on how to make these little spaceships clean-outable and refillable, because the cells within will naturally reproduce and die off, eventually running out of space.

In addition to these pursuits here are some more of the questions involved in this research:

  • What's the best material to make the "scaffolding" out of? It needs to be porus and soft, but not fragile enough to break apart or degrade in the body.
  • How many cells should be implanted, and should they be grouped in any particular way? Insulin-producing cells don't like to be alone, but also don't like to be over-crowded. Further research in the Desai lab is examining the precise number of cells to cluster together for optimal longevity and function.
  • What size and shape should the pores in the coating be? The material has to allow some molecules to pass through, while keeping others out. If the "good" ones were small and the "bad" were large then this might be a no-brainer. But of course, it's not nearly that simple. The lab is experimenting with complicated pore shapes that interact differently with different molecules.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the "smart insulin" idea. But seeing the great work that's going on in Dr. Tejal Desai's lab yesterday really jazzed me up about the possibilities of islet cell transplantation. The challenges and questions are extraordinarily complex, but these folks are getting some real answers.

Click here for more information about Dr. Desai and her lab.

Intriguing & exciting! How cool that you’ve seen this firsthand. I want an insulin spaceship. I’ve been following LCT’s Diabecell research that’s in Phase II trials. http://www.lctglobal.com/Product-Pipeline/Diabecell/

I’m also a smart insulin fan. Sadly, I wonder if we’ll ever see this now that the patent has been bought.

Hey Gerri. It was pretty cool to see the little spaceships. I want one, too. :)

Where do I sign up? I’ve been following this research, albeit not very regularly. Sounds very promising!

Looks like great work !..but didnt quite understand the addendum “…woman of color–no less”… Women ( as do men) from India are known for their scientific and technological achievements.

I am curious about the color reference, too – nothing in the post to clarify.

Gerri- Re: Smart Insulin
Did you see that JDRF is having an invention competition for a molecule similar to smart insulin? Seems to me that JDRF would not be offering $100,000 for ideas similar to Smart Insulin if they knew a molecule like it is in the “pipeline”. They were previously involved in Smart Insulin and I wonder if they don’t know something that we do not if they are offering this type of cash for ideas.

Emily- pretty cool research. I have been frustrated recently because I have not had an oppurtunity to particiapte in any cool research protocols. Can someone bring the research close to me please?


Thanks for the info. I didn’t know that. Reinventing the wheel, but maybe it will yield a better wheel. I cried when Merck bought the Smart Isulin patent.

What does “young woman of colour” have to do with anything?? Quite offensive!

“A young women of color”. I would agree that is offensive. A better title would have been some like “Young woman embarks on Fascinating Research!”

Hey all,

I’ve changed the original title of this post because it was called to my attention that its meaning could be misunderstood, which is the last thing I want! I’m really sorry if any of you understood the old title in a way that left you feeling hurt or offended. The reasoning behind it, in my mind, was that the fact that Dr. Desai is in a minority in this field in several ways, and is getting great recognition for her cutting-edge work, is really exciting. Many different kinds of people, from all over the world and many walks of life are engaged in the pursuit to find better treatments for people with diabetes, which I find very encouraging.

Again, I’m very sorry if my meaning was unclear and caused any bad feelings.

hey emily heres a video I posted a while back, it will better help explain to others on your post enjoy! -P.S Can’t wait ttys. http://www.smartplanet.com/video/nanotechnology-to-end-insulin-injections-for-diabetics/370926

Awesome! Thanks Jim :slight_smile:

I’m a woman of colour and coincidentally was in the same year as Dr Desai in college. I didn’t think the original title was offensive at all!