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Can submarine technology transform islet transplantation?

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of the University of Minnesota Foundation e-publication Discoveries in Diabetes and was written by Karin Miller.

Research collaborators working with the University of Minnesota and University of Arizona embarked on a unique experiment in August. A donor pancreas, chaperoned by a graduate student, was flown by commercial jet from Minneapolis to Tucson, Arizona. The goal: to see if a new organ preservation technique could extend the life of the donor pancreas. It did.

Generally, a donor pancreas must get from its origination city to its destination—sometimes across the country—in just eight hours to be suitable for transplantation. After that, the organ has spent too much time without oxygen to be used. But a new oxygen preservation technology developed by U adjunct professor Klearchos Papas, Ph.D., in collaboration with Giner Inc., would extend the life of this organ up to 24 hours.

With this technology, Papas estimates that the percentage of usable pancreas organs could jump from 42 percent to 60 or 70 percent. The better-preserved pancreases will result in higher quality islet cells as well, he says, increasing the number of people who could become insulin independent with a first pancreas transplant.

But because the donor organ supply is inadequate to meet current demands, Papas and U imaging expert Mike Garwood, Ph.D., are working towards the goal of creating an artificial, implantable pancreas, where human, pig, or stem cell islets could be implanted and protected, meeting the needs of people with type 1 diabetes. This work is championed by the Schott Foundation, which made a recent gift of $100,000 to fund it—bringing its historic U diabetes research support to more than $385,000.

“We are a small foundation, so we tend to work with startup projects that aren’t yet eligible for national grants,” says foundation principal Owen Schott, adding the gift is in part personal—several members of his wife’s family have diabetes. Also, he appreciates Papas’s creative approach.

Papas began this work by teaming up with Giner Inc. and tapping oxygenation technology designed for nuclear submarines—converting water into oxygen. By miniaturizing that process, he was able to extend the viability of a donor pancreas. Now, Papas and Garwood plan to adapt this technology and further miniaturize it, so that it can preserve islets inside an implantable, artificial pancreas.

Garwood says putting the islets into the device solves two problems: “We can monitor the oxygen”—helping islets remain optimal posttransplant—“ and we can use human islets without immunosuppression, because the artificial device separates the islets from the body,” which would otherwise reject them.

This approach with human islets could alleviate the need for immunosuppressive drugs, which can cause serious health issues, and could have applications for use in treating children.

“This is an extremely promising approach for eliminating type 1 diabetes and getting people back to normal lives,” says Garwood, who calls the Schott Foundation’s gift “critical.”

Owen Schott and his brother, Dell Schott, believe that their family foundation’s continued support for U diabetes research it just one part of the puzzle. “We can’t all be 3M Foundation or the McKnight Foundation, but we can all do our part and help,” says Owen Schott.

Papas says that he and Garwood couldn’t achieve their goals without this kind of seed funding. “These gifts are invaluable. Without them, our work would in no way be doable.”

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