Technology in hand, Ferrari is launching his attack on a pressing medical problem: diabetes. In one form of the disease, the cells in the pancreas that normally produce insulin do not function properly. The most attractive cure would be to implant fresh copies of the body’s tiny glandular insulin factories (called islets of Langerhans) into the body. These would replace the broken pancreatic machinery and restore the body’s delicate feedback loop. Such new tissue, however, must be harvested from a compatible nonhuman species. “You would want to use pig islet cells,” says Ferrari, “but then your immune system would go crazy and destroy them because they are foreign.” Previous attempts to transplant foreign cells required that the patient take drugs to suppress the immune response. That strategy, however, can leave a patient dangerously susceptible to infections.
Ferrari’s solution is to house replacement cells in a container made with his nanoporous membrane material. Small glucose molecules could stream freely through the nanoholes into the capsule to activate the cells, and the insulin could trickle out to control the blood chemistry. Ferrari says that he has the technology ready to go. “We’ve had success in small animals,” he says, “but we need to do it in larger animals like dogs. That would be the slam dunk to allow us to go into human trials.” What’s holding Ferrari back is funding, and he hopes to get enough money to do large animal studies in a year, and possibly human studies in two years.
Ferrari isn’t the only one who thinks that cells can be smuggled into the body to restore normal function. Tejal Desai, who is a bioengineer at the University of Illinois and former student of Ferrari when they were both at the University of California, Berkeley (Desai was recently named to TR100’s list of young innovators), is investigating the approach for use in the brain-bringing in normal cells that would secrete neurotransmitters. Those neurotransmitters might be able to replace the ones lost when cells are damaged in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Desai is utilizing the same nanopore fabrication technology used by Ferrari to make microcapsules for implanting neurons in the brain. Once the capsules are implanted, the neurons can be electrically stimulated to release neurotransmitters. Eventually, says Desai, this technology “could be used for such applications as treating Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s-basically any disorder where the basic neurosecretory-cells are missing or damaged.”