Living drug factories?

MIT researchers have found a new way to treat diabetes using transplanted islet cells that produce insulin when blood sugar levels are too high. 

By encapsulating therapeutic cells in a flexible protective device, they were able to prevent immune rejection while still allowing O2 and other critical nutrients to reach the cells. Even better, these encapsulated cells have the ability to release insulin or other proteins whenever they are needed.In a Study with Mice 

  • Genetically engineered human cells remained viable for about five months 
  • It may be possible to extend their viability forlong-term treatment of chronic diseases 
  • Transplanted rat islets inside microdevices maintained normal blood glucose levels for more than 10 weeks

The researchers also tested this approach with human embryonic kidney cells that were engineered to produce erythropoietin,a hormone that promotes red blood cell production. The therapeutic human cell:

  •  Survived in mice for at least the 19-week duration of the experiment 
  • Led to an increase in the red blood cell count in the animals which was sustained for the duration of the experiment

The takeaway? Researchers showed that they could program transplanted cells to produce a protein in response to a small molecule drug. This programming allows for on-demand production of a protein or hormone when it is needed. This “living drug factory” could be beneficial for treating any kind of chronic disease that requires constant doses of a protein or hormone. 

“This is the eighth Nature journal paper our team has published in the past four-plus years elucidating key fundamental aspects of biocompatibility of implants. We hope and believe these findings will lead to new super-biocompatible implants to treat diabetes and many other diseases in the years to come,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and an author of the paper.


Trafton, Anne. “‘Living Drug Factories’ Might Treat Diabetes and Other Diseases.” MIT News30 Mar. 2020,