One way sufferers of type 1 diabetes may compensate for a lack of insulin is through an experimental procedure called pancreatic islet transplantation, a process that sees clusters of cells transplanted from the pancreas of a healthy donor. A side effect of this is the need for ongoing doses of immunosuppressant drugs to stop the body attacking the foreign cells. But a new approach that sees these clusters protected by a 3D-printed scaffold is showing promise as a delivery technique, potentially pointing to less painstaking ways to manage the condition.

For sufferers of type 1 diabetes, crossing the threshold to dangerously low levels of glucose in the blood can have a range of nasty effects including dizziness, sweating or even unconsciousness and death. These episodes are known as hypoglycemia, or hypos for short, and affect around one third of type 1 diabetes sufferers according to Diabetes UK.

Looking to improve the success rate of pancreatic islet transplantation, and by extension the quality of life for type 1 diabetics, researchers from Holland's University of Twente set about building special scaffolds for better delivery. The thinking was that these could shield the cell clusters from the body's immune system and give them a better chance of functioning properly once they were in place.

The researchers embedded the islets in scaffolds made with a mix of alginate and gelatin. They opted for a porous rather than solid structure, as they say this allowed for an ideal exchange of glucose and insulin. Also important was the level of thickness and stickiness of the mixture, as it needed to be firm enough to be used with a 3D printer, but not so much that it impacted the ability of the embedded islets to do their job once transplanted.

In the lab, the researchers found that the islets incorporated into the 3D-printed scaffolds were just as capable of performing their role as regular islet cells. This suggests that the delivery approach doesn't affect their functionality, and that it could provide an effective safeguard against the body's immune system.

"If we are to improve the success of this treatment for type 1 diabetes, we need to create an implant in which islets are embedded, or encapsulated, from a material that allows for very efficient oxygen and nutrient supply, and quick exchange of glucose and insulin, while keeping the host cells out," says one of the study's co-authors, Dr A A van Apeidoorn.

The findings have been published in the journal Institute of Physics.