Seaweed in novel diabetes treatment


130,000 Australians have this type of diabetes, which requires them to inject insulin several times a day to stay alive.

"This simple treatment could be the end of daily insulin injections," said the leader of the research, UNSW Professor Bernie Tuch, the Director of the Diabetes Transplant Unit (DTU) at the Prince of Wales Hospital (POW).

The procedure involves a simple one-off injection through the skin into the abdomen, while the patient is alert and awake. What is injected are insulin-producing cells, placed inside microcapsules made of a product from seaweed, known as alginate.

"There are pores on the surface of the microcapsules which allow the passage of nutrients to the cells and insulin from the cells to the recipient. However, immune cells are too large to enter the capsule," said Professor Tuch.

The cells, known as 'islets', are isolated from the pancreas of human donors after their death.

Insulin producing cells in a seaweed capsule. (Photo: UNSW )
"In the past, a small number of people with juvenile diabetes were transplanted with insulin-producing cells that were not placed in microcapsules. They needed to take immunosuppressive drugs on an ongoing basis afterwards to prevent the body rejecting the cells," said Professor Tuch. "These drugs have side-effects including an increased risk of infection and cancer. Such risks need to outweigh the benefits and this limits those who can be recipients."

A consortium of diabetes researchers in other states of Australia is poised to implement similar transplants in other states, pending the outcome of the small pilot trial of six recipients.

To date the research has been funded by private donors and The Australian Foundation for Diabetes Research. The research has been approved by the South East Sydney/Illawarra Area Health Service Human Research Ethics Committee.

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