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Chip Device Simulates Islet Cell Functions

Islet cell chip

Islet cell testing chip (Michael Rosnach, Harvard University)

30 Aug. 2019. A new device testing the functions of insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas is designed on a plastic chip made with common materials and manufacturing methods. Researchers from Harvard University’s applied science and engineering school describe the device in yesterday’s issue of the journal Lab on a Chip (paid subscription required).

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that produces enzymes for digestion and hormones for regulation of glucose or blood sugar. In the latter function, islet or beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin to lower and glucagon to raise blood sugar levels. Diabetes is a chronic disorder where the pancreas does not create enough insulin to process the sugar glucose to flow into the blood stream and cells for energy in the body. In type 2 diabetes, which accounts for at least 90 percent of all diabetes cases, the pancreas produces some but not enough insulin, or the body cannot process insulin. With type 1 diabetes, an inherited autoimmune disorder, beta cells in the pancreas do not produce insulin.

A team from the Disease Biophysics Group and other labs at Harvard, with colleagues from Florida State University in Tallahassee, are seeking a faster, easier, and less expensive technique for testing islet cells for transplanting into patients. Transplanting functioning beta cells derived from stem cells is an emerging treatment for type 1 diabetes. Douglas Melton, a co-author of the paper, studies this process at the university’s Stem Cell Institute, where he is co-director.

Current testing processes, however, are slow, manual, and require large numbers of cells. The new device offers an automated system for loading, stimulating, and sensing the insulin produced by beta cells being tested. “Our device arranges islets into separate lines, delivers a pulse of glucose to each one simultaneously, and detects how much insulin is produced,” says graduate student and co-first author Aaron Glieberman in a university statement. “It couples glucose stimulation and insulin detection in the same flow path, so it can give a clinician actionable information, quickly.”

Tests of the device with islet cells from human cadavers confirmed the chip’s functioning, with sensing and reporting of insulin completed within two minutes. The chip contains channels etched into common thermoplastics, that can be shaped and formed when heated, but become solid when cooled. These polymers are also recyclable. The researchers say the device’s design and materials should make it possible to produce with today’s manufacturing methods.

“The islet-on-a-chip lets us monitor how donated or manufactured islet cells are releasing insulin, as cells in the body can,” says Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering and director of the Disease Biophysics Group. Parker adds, “The device makes it easier to screen drugs that stimulate insulin secretion, test stem-cell-derived beta cells, and study the fundamental biology of islets. There is no other quality-control technology out there that can do it as fast, and as accurately.”

The university applied for patents on the technology and is seeking commercialization opportunities. Those opportunities may come from companies already known to the researchers. Parker is also on the faculty of the Wyss Institute at Harvard, where a spin-off enterprise Emulate Inc. is producing organs on chips for drug testing. And Melton is scientific founder of Semma Therapeutics, developing stem cell treatments for type 1 diabetes.

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