Researchers have used spiders’ webs as inspiration for a new removable implant they believe could one day replace insulin injections, to treat type 1 diabetes.
Around 130,000 Australians live with the auto-immune disease, and have to take daily injections to manage it. However, a research team from Cornell University in New York have studied the way water collects on spiders’ webs, to create a new device they believe could replace them.
For people suffering from diabetes, insulin-producing pancreatic cell clusters, called islets, are destroyed by the body’s immune system. The implant would replace these, and the team were inspired by the way water beads on a spider’s silk web.
“We borrowed the structure in the beginning of this study and developed a better configuration later on,” Duo An, the co-lead author of the research paper, said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The device is built with a nanoporous thread which holds hundreds of thousands of islets. It then has a uniform hydrogel layer around the thread, to protect them from the body’s immune system.
Previous methods saw each islet get covered with the protective layer, but it meant they became disjointed and then difficult to remove from the body without causing damage. Lead researcher Minglin Ma explained: “When they fail or die, they need to come out… You don’t want to put something in the body that you can’t take out. With our method, that’s not a problem.”
“You don’t have any gaps between capsules,” he added. “With a spider’s silk, you still have gaps between the water beads.”
While the treatment itself has been researched before, the team found by having one universal protective layer surrounding the islets, it can be safely implanted and removed from the body through non-invasive laparoscopic surgery.
The method, named Thread-Reinforced Alginate Fibre For Islets enCapsulation (TRAFFIC), was tested in mice, and according to the site, it “successfully reduced their blood glucose levels within two days”. A month later, it was tested on dogs, and using the surgical method, they were removed successfully a month later.
Dr An explained the study is now looking at ways to lengthen the lifespan of the device, as it reportedly currently sits around six to 24 months. The team then hope to test it on humans, but it may take some time before it’s potentially rolled out, as “there are still some issues that need to be addressed” in terms of mass production, Dr An added.