Molecular drugs are far from perfect. As biotechnology develops, researchers are finding that human cells may be used in the treatment of certain diseases, and in some cases offer benefits over traditional therapies. This is the theory behind Encellin, a San Francisco-based company that hopes to change the treatment for Type I diabetes. Encellin’s technology could replace pancreatic islet cells, which are the primary defect in Type I diabetes. The company’s investigational device resembles a patch, consisting of donor human pancreatic islet cells residing within two sealed layers of a thin nanoporous material. This material is designed to allow the donor cells to detect glucose levels and secrete insulin as needed, just as normal islet cells would. It could also protect the cells from the immune system, thereby preventing the need for immunosuppressants. Currently, the implant is about the thickness of a human hair. Encellin began with founder and CEO Crystal Nyitray’s belief in cell-based therapies. “All of the features that we try to recapitulate in medicine are trying to understand what cells do,” she told us. “I was trying to find a way to help cells do what they do better.” Nyitray holds a PhD in Chemistry and Chemical Biology from the University of California, San Francisco. It was during her PhD program that she met Tejal Desai, a UCSF researcher who had been working on the concept of islet cell encapsulation for Type I diabetes. Nyitray joined Desai’s lab to refine the encapsulation technology that would become her PhD project, and eventually Encellin. Since its incorporation in early 2016, Encellin has focused on moving the research of this therapy forward. The potential advantages are many; among them, that Encellin’s device, if successful, would eliminate the need for constant blood sugar monitoring and insulin injections. Encellin plans to initially address Type I diabetics waiting for a whole pancreas transplant. The end goal, however, is much bigger. “The vision is to be able to completely eliminate the need for supplemental insulin,” said Nyitray. While that may seem lofty, “you’ve seen that islet [cells] can rescue patients from Type I diabetes,” Nyitray points out. “You can do organ transplants, and you can do islet transplants… and be completely insulin independent.” Of course, these traditional transplants require life-long immunosuppression, and they don’t work every time. “At the end of the day, the cell is the ultimate smart machine,” says Nyitray. And by creating a device in which these smart machines can do their job, Encellin may be an important part of the cell therapy revolution. To learn more, check out Encellin’s website… Cici Zhou Cici Zhou is currently a medical student at the University of Oklahoma. In the past, she has done management consulting for medical businesses, served as Chief Scientific Officer for a college startup, and most recently spent summer as a lab researcher at UC San Francisco. She’s excited by the intersection of medicine + technology because of its ability to completely transform the industry and touch millions of lives – and as a future physician, she hopes to be a part of that revolution.