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The secret to cure diabetes could be enclosed in small bioengineered capsules. A Consortium of European universities and companies is now at work to make them a reality.

(Vienna, 29-07-2015) - Helping diabetes mellitus patients restore normal sugar control without the current need for daily insulin injections. It is the main goal of ELASTISLET: Tailored Elastin-like Recombinamers as Advanced Systems for Cell Therapies in Diabetes Mellitus: a Synthetic Biology Approach towards a Bioeffective and Immunoisolated Biosimilar Islet/Cell Niche, a new research project funded by the Horizon 2020 Programme of the European Commission, officially launched in June 2015.

Diabetes is a chronic disease that over time can inflict serious damage to different organs and systems like heart, blood vessels, kidneys, nerves and eyes. The absolute number of diabetics in Europe is on the rise and it is expected to reach 38 million cases within 2030, which will increase the financial burden on member state health care systems. Recent studies found that the overall cost of diabetes is estimated to exceed €188 billion in the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany combined.

The development of new strategies to cope with diabetes is crucial, and the ELASTISLET project goes in this direction: making an efficient treatment, which enhances life quality for Type I and Type II diabetics by avoiding insulin-and sugar lowering drug-dependence.ELASTISLET aims to design and evaluate new strategies for the transplantation of insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells, which could naturally control blood sugar. Transplantation of healthy islets effectively restores pancreatic insulin production, but requires immunosuppressive drugs and do not function efficiently over the long-term. The development of novel strategies is necessary.

ELASTISLET strategy is based on encapsulation of insulin-producing islet cells to improve cell integration and normal insulin production. “The proposed encapsulating strategy involves a superior bio-inspired material, designed to mimic a human elastin, like protein found in connective tissue” says José Carlos Rodríguez-Cabello of Universidad de Valladolid (Spain), coordinator of the project. 

“The aim of the MedUni Wien partner in the project is to evaluate the novel immune-isolated and biomimetic scaffolds for islet cell transplantation”, says, Michelle Epstein, the head of the Experimental Allergy Lab in the Department of Dermatology.  “This novel bioengineered coating being designed in the project is to ensure that the implanted cells will survive and function without being attacked by the immune system”, continues Epstein. The highly innovative protein-based biopolymer will be combined with cutting-edge technologies to form capsules to form around islets that are safe, allow insulin diffusion, promote access to blood supply and nutrients, immunoisolate insulin-producing cells and ultimately and control blood sugar of diabetics. The outcome of the ELASTISLET is to promote complete integration and fusion of the capsule and the surrounding tissues. The groundbreaking nature of the project mainly lies in the ambitious approach to overcome existing barriers that limit current therapies for diabetes. A multidisciplinary Consortium of eleven partners, including universities, SMEs and research institutes from eight European countries will cooperate for the next four years to develop a smarter strategy to cope with diabetes.