JDRF Canada and all JDRF affiliates are committed to supporting the development of cell replacement therapies that will one day offer cures for type 1 diabetes (T1D). T1D is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks and kills off the cells in the pancreas responsible for producing insulin. The first step in the cell replacement pathway to cures, initiated more than 60 years ago, is replacing these cells that have been lost with donor-derived or renewably sourced cells.
Cell transplantation outcomes to restore glucose control have improved over the years, but currently still require immunosuppressive drugs like any other organ replacement—medications that keep the immune system from attacking these cells and rejecting the implant. Taking these medications can have detrimental side effects on a person’s organs and suppress immunity, making the individual more at risk for secondary infections. Given these risks, the need for chronic use of immunosuppressive drugs has limited donor islet transplantation to people with T1D who have severe, life-threatening unawareness of their low blood glucose, known as being hypoglycemic unaware.
These and other challenges are frequent topics of discussion at meetings of the JDRF Beta Cell Replacement Consortium, a group of JDRF-funded academic and industry researchers convened by JDRF twice each year to share advances and collaborate to drive this field forward.
A possible solution to creating islet tissue suitable for transplantation is 3D bioprinting, which employs methods used in traditional 3D printing, except it’s used to combine cells and other biomaterials to fabricate tissues and organs. In 2019, JDRF held a workshop to discuss ways that 3D bioprinting could be used to develop cell therapies for T1D and subsequently put out a request for applications for this new and innovative technology.
Aspect Biosystems is an industry leader in 3D bioprinting. Its unique technology allows the combination of multiple different biomaterials in one cell-containing implant. Founded in 2013 and located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Aspect’s technology was a perfect match to support development of an implantable insulin-producing cell therapy for T1D without the need for immune suppression. JDRF International provided funding for the project in 2022.
In April 2023 Aspect Biosystems and Novo Nordisk announced a partnership to expand the development a new class of treatments for diabetes and obesity, using Aspect’s bioprinting technology and Novo Nordisk’s expertise in stem cell and cell therapy development.
“We are delighted by this powerful partnership, as it’s an exciting advance for the field of islet replacement therapy,” said Sarah Linklater, PhD, JDRF Canada’s Chief Scientific Officer. “This will accelerate an approach that may make cell therapy accessible for more people with T1D.”
As part of JDRF’s funding support to cure research, the strategy has been to accelerate multiple approaches to cell therapies. Today, 50+ companies and research groups are advancing cell replacement development and cures with JDRF support and through the JDRF Beta Cell Replacement Consortium.
The Aspect-Novo Nordisk partnership’s initial focus will be on developing bioprinted therapies for transplant that would be designed to maintain normal blood glucose levels without the need for immunosuppression. This could represent a transformative treatment for people living with T1D and make it more accessible to many more people with the disease.
We will continue to provide updates on this new technology as they become available.