Beta living through stem cells

Insulin-producing cells will be tested first in patients lacking a pancreas.


Diabetes is way complex. “But it’s a simple disease conceptually—your body doesn’t produce enough insulin,” notes Joslin Diabetes Center researcher Gordon Weir.

In type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune attack wipes out insulin-producing beta cells, which are found in clusters of pancreatic cells called islets. In type 2 diabetes, the beta cells are still there but not hauling all the freight. That disease can be treated with many other types of drugs, along with lifestyle changes. But over time, beta cells wear out. In fact, more people with type 2 take insulin than people with type 1.

And there’s no way to make insulin injections pleasant or easily controllable or as good as insulin production by beta cells.

Thus the huge interest in a long-term research project spearheaded by Harvard’s Doug Melton to create working beta cells by manipulating stem cells. An update on the ambitious project from Melton, Weir and other partners drew a crowd at Harvard on Monday.

Making insulin-producing cells good enough for clinical trials “turns out to be rather difficult; it took more than a decade,” Melton said. “We haven’t made it really perfect, but it’s at the goal line.”

Technology from Melton’s lab has been licensed exclusively to the startup Semma Therapeutics, which is joining with Joslin, Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to move toward clinical trials. Traveling under the ungainly title of the Boston Autologous Islet Replacement Therapy Program (BAIRT), the collaboration launched in June.

The first BAIRT studies, starting at least three years from now, will not be among people with type 1 diabetes. Instead, they will recruit people who have had their pancreases removed, usually because of uncontrollable pain after the organs are chronically inflamed by years of heavy drinking.

This approach bypasses the biggest problem in cell treatments for type 1 diabetes: the body renews its autoimmune attack and wipes out the newly introduced cells. “We decided to solve one problem at a time,” Melton explained.

Patients who have prostatectomies often now are given islet cells salvaged from their own pancreas, which helps to improve their diabetes control, but those cells may themselves be damaged or in short supply, said Brigham surgeon Sayeed Malek. Transplants of brand-new beta cells, made from the patients’ own blood, should help.

These reengineered cells will be injected in the arm, where they will be easy to monitor  and to remove if necessary, said Semma CEO Robert Millman. Decades of experience transplanting cells from cadavers has shown that “you can put beta cells just about anywhere,” Weir added.

Against autoimmunity. If all goes well, the project will continue into trials for type 1 diabetes with non-personalized beta cells, where the autoimmune attack will be blunted via encapsulating the cells. Seema is spending about half its budget on encapsulation technologies, Millman said.

Encapsulation is the near-term solution to fend off the autoimmune attack. “The long-term solution is to use the power of biology to understand why the immune system has made this mistake,” Melton remarked.

He briefly mentioned two promising research thrusts. One effort is to learn from the rapid advances in knowledge about how cancer cells dodge the immune system.

Another, led by Chad Cowan of Massachusetts General Hospital, aims to create a “universal donor pluripotent stem cell.” Missing all the billboard signs that alert immune enforcers, these cells could play a role like that of O-positive cells in blood transfusions.

Asked about his own take on the causes of type 1, Melton mentioned one theory that the autoimmune attack may be triggered by gut cells that naturally produce insulin or similar substances under certain conditions.

Slow and steady. Bringing beta cell therapies to the clinic will be a marathon march with not only many scientific steps but many regulatory steps. Millman emphasized, however, that “the FDA is working with us very early on the regulatory path.”

Among potential safety risks, all stem cell therapies must be carefully vetted to avoid the growth of teratomas—tumors with a jumbled mix of cells, usually benign. These cellular junk piles would be relatively easy to remove, but much better to avoid altogether, Millman said.

Another concern is that the cells will secrete insulin even when it’s not needed, dropping the recipient’s blood sugar levels to dangerously low levels.

There also is much cause for worry that the cells won’t last long, a major problem in transplants of cadaver beta cells. However, built-from-scratch cells function “for more than a year in mice, which bodes well for people,” Weir commented. And Millman pointed out that the cells resemble juvenile cells, which may help them withstand the high stresses of transplantation better than worn-out adult beta cells do. “We hope these almost pristine cells going into the patients will last a lot longer,” he said.

None of this will come cheap. Asked about pricing for cell therapies, way down the road when and if they hit the market, Millman was understandably wary. Initial costs for these treatments will be very high, accompanied by very close regulatory scrutiny. Semma has raised about $50 million, but “we need philanthropy and we need institutions to support this,” he said.

Melton suggested, though, that successful cell-based therapies will make complete  economic sense, given the soaring numbers of people with diabetes and the huge costs of diabetes care. Each year the world spends about $30 billion on insulin alone. “Diabetes is not an orphan disease,” he said. “The cost will come down very quickly.”

Capping off

sphere_scarringAn MIT alginate microcapsule holding islet cells (in green) and being covered by immune cells (in blue and magenta). Image credit: Omid Veiseh, Joshua Doloff, Minglin Ma and Arturo Vegas.

There’s a worldwide deficit in insulin-producing beta cells, for people with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes, Harvard’s Doug Melton told a session at the ADA annual scientific conference on Friday.

“It’s a completely non-trivial thing that you can now make billions of human beta cells,” he said. “We spent more than a decade trying to march these cells through this procedure.”

Currently, it takes his lab about 40 days to produce the cells at a cost of about $6,000 per flask, but Melton is confident that these numbers can be chopped down.

The achievement required not only brilliant scientific detective legwork, especially on the last steps of differentiation, but lab drudgework on a dramatic scale.

Picking apart the steps that drive cells into beta shape, “we had to sort out three or four factors at a time,” he noted. The lab ran screens of small molecules to find what combinations were effective. Testing eight small molecules, in three concentrations, for different periods, in triplicate meant about 65,000 combinations to examine per screen.

The lab of MIT bioengineer Dan Anderson, collaborating with Melton to build microcapsules for the beta cells, took high-volume testing to a much higher level for various capsule designs.

Over the decades, many groups have tried to encapsulate beta cells in tiny spheres of alginate. Historically, “all these capsules end up covered in scar tissue,” Anderson told the ADA session.

But after endlessly tweaking the properties of these spheres, “we have a growing list of materials we could use,” he said.

One capsule material seems to work well in mice with strong immune systems—and in very early testing in macaques. Details on the material aren’t yet public, but the secret isn’t in the material’s permeability but in how the immune system reacts to it, Anderson said.

His group’s exhaustive testing also gave clues to how capsule size affects immune scarring. Last month, he and colleagues reported in Nature Materials that 1.5-mm-diameter capsules do better than 0.5-mm structures. Was that a surprise? “It was for us,” Anderson replied. “We thought smaller would be better.”

Encapsulating answers to type 1 diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes are understandably excited about progress toward an “artificial pancreas” but they never lose the hope for a true cure, in which they can live like everyone else, without juggling synthetic hormones and hardware clomped on their skin that pierces their skin and will never work perfectly.

A true cure is a blue-sky goal built on two sets of major medical advances, and we have no idea what year those advances might arrive.

One set is to understand the autoimmune onslaught that brings on type 1 and then find a way to stop it. Serious and sometimes brilliant research keeps charging ahead, but autoimmune diseases hold extremely devious secrets and guard them very well.

The second set is to create a cells that replace those wiped out by the autoimmune attack and can generate insulin (and maybe related pancreatic hormones) at appropriate levels. Stem cell research aimed to do so is going gangbusters but is generally a long way from clinical trials.

With one big exception:

Yesterday Viacyte filed with the FDA for permission to run a trial for its VC-01 device, which encapsulates human progenitor cells—human embryonic stem cells that in this case have gone partly down the development path to hormone-producing cells. (The company, then known as Novocell, began work with embryonic stem cells years before the 2006 discovery of ways to create induced pluripotent stem cells, which possess very similar abilities to differentiate into almost any kind of cell but can be created from adult cells.)

Viacyte’s encapsulation container is a Teflonish cartridge about the size of a band-aid and thickness of a credit card, with holes too small for immune cells to enter but big enough to allow oxygen, glucose and other key ingredients to flow in and to allow insulin and other hormones to flow out.

The theory is that the capsule is inserted via an outpatient procedure, the immune system mostly ignores it, blood vessels build up to feed the cells, the cells are driven by signals within their fairly normal local human microenvironment to differentiate into a range of hormone-producing cells, the cells churn out insulin and its hormone cousins, and normal blood glucose levels and related metabolism are maintained. A functional cure, in short, for a year or two or three while the device functions properly.

This all works nicely in mice, but mice are not always man’s best friend in diabetes research. Investigators have struggled with encapsulation techniques for many years, and stem-cell-derived cells are unproven. The list of what could go wrong in the Viacyte trial is very long. Patients might reject the capsule. The cells might die quickly or slowly or never gather suitable blood vessels or fail in other ways. They might generate side effects that no one has imagined.

But Viacyte seems to have the science on its side and its head on straight and a good step-by-step plan. Assuming the FDA agrees, I don’t expect a home run in the first trial, but simply getting on base would be huge. And we should know within a year.

Viacyte Encaptra