Seaweed Capsules May Give Diabetics An Injection-Free Life

insulin
Patients suffering from type 1 diabetes don't produce enough insulin in their pancreas; as a result, they rely on daily insulin injections to keep their glucose levels normal. Pixabay, public domain

Researchers have developed a new method to reduce the amount of insulin injections needed during a type 1 diabetic’s daily routine, hoping to make patients’ lives easier.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that allows sugar to enter the cells. Type 2 diabetes, meanwhile, affects the body slightly differently, by either resisting insulin or not producing enough insulin; type 2 diabetes is more often linked to obesity and other chronic health issues. Some 29.1 million people, or 9.3 percent of the U.S. population, have diabetes.

Insulin is produced by cells in the pancreas, an organ that’s part of the endocrine gland in the digestive system. These insulin-producing cells are gathered in pancreatic islets, a tiny fraction of the total pancreatic tissue. One way to treat diabetes and reduce the amount of daily insulin injections is to complete a pancreatic islet transplantation — a minor operation that transplants islets and boost insulin production. The problem lies in preserving the islets before the transplant; doctors will typically deep freeze them to -190°C, but it’s the freezing (-15 to -60°C) and thawing processes that pose the most risk of destroying the islet cells.

Now, researchers out of the Okinawa Institute of Technology and Science Graduate University (OIST), in collaboration with the University of Washington and Wuhan University of Technology, developed a new method to solve these issues. The authors of the study defined a new cryopreservation procedure that involves using alginate, a natural component of seaweed. The researchers placed pancreatic islets into hydrogel made from alginate, forming a little capsule that contained three different types of water: free water, freezable water, and non-freezable bound water.

Due to the non-freezable bound water, the cells were protected in the capsules during the freezing process, offering a more effective way to achieve cryopreservation. The researchers also found that using a fluorescent oxygen-sensitive dye in the hydrogel capsules proved to be an effective way to make sure the cells were alive or healthy, by depicting whether the cells were consuming oxygen.

Making sure the islets are safe and the cells are healthy during transplantation is important, as it lowers the risk of rejection by the patient. Ultimately, the researchers hope their new technique will allow people suffering from type 2 diabetes to live an easier, less hassled life, where they don’t constantly have to worry about insulin injections every few hours.

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