Taxpayers should be pleased to see a much-welcome return on federal expenditures — and from a rather unusual source: 219 miles straight overhead.
A company called Encapsulife announced Thursday that it has received U.S. Patent No. 8,673,294 for an “Immunoisolation Patch System for Cellular Transplantation.” This springs from research first performed aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger’s Mission STS 51-B in late April/early May, 1985.
Dr. Taylor Wang, Ph.D., was a payload specialist on that Challenger journey. While orbiting the Earth, the then–Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior scientist conducted experiments that yielded “a better understanding of the physics governing encapsulation,” as he told me. Now, 29 years later, the fruit of his taxpayer-funded studies is growing ripe. If Wang and his Encapsulife colleagues are right, their invention will cure diabetes.
Briefly and simply, Encapsulife’s patch would be inserted beneath a diabetic’s skin through a simple, minimally invasive, outpatient surgical procedure. The silver-dollar-sized patch contains thousands of islet cells, derived from either live human donors or medically raised pigs. These cells biologically produce insulin when they encounter glucose. The patch’s multiple layers shield the islets from the body’s white blood cells and other immune mechanisms while letting the insulin diffuse into the diabetic’s blood stream. The result is, essentially, an artificial pancreas that automatically generates insulin and avoids rejection without immunosuppressant drugs. (Such medicines can trigger harmful side effects, including limiting the body’s defenses against opportunistic infections.)
“Multi-layer capsule systems — similar in concept to a Russian matryoshka doll, with the islet cells being the inner-most doll — are technically difficult to fabricate and rely on Dr. Wang’s innovations,” says Encapsulife president Tom Gibson. “Our multi-layer system is the only one that successfully has reversed diabetes in canines and primates.” Gibson adds that this patch involves “no batteries, no mechanical break-downs, no kinks in pump lines, no injections, no finger-prick blood tests four to eight times a day, no guessing how much insulin to inject to match meals, no dangerous (potentially fatal) hypoglycemic lows, etc.”
Dr. Wang considers his NASA tenure key to all of these achievements.
“Without NASA’s Shuttle, Spacelab 3, and early follow-on micro-gravity research support, none of our bio-medical advances, with promise to provide enormous medical benefits to mankind, would have come to pass,” Dr. Wang says. “I was pleased to tell this to NASA administrator Charles Bolden last week.” Interestingly enough, curing diabetes was not Dr. Wang’s objective as he zoomed through the heavens at 17,500 miles per hour.
“At the time, I was working on some beautiful fundamental-science experiments,” Dr. Wang says. “Medical research never entered my mind.” Since then, these practical considerations have consumed him. “I should not have answered my medical colleague’s phone call to collaborate,” he says. “I would have a more peaceful life. When I got obsessed with this project, it crowded out many other important things in my life: Family time, holidays, movies, walking with my wife. As a matter of fact, she hated this experiment.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Wang’s decades of work now could cure Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. These diseases affect 1 million and 18 million Americans, respectively. Diabetes kills some 71,000 Americans annually and costs the U.S. economy $245 billion every year, including 20 percent of Medicare’s budget — roughly $110 billion. If commercialized, Encapsulife’s patch could save millions of lives and billions of taxpayer dollars.
Encapsulife’s Tom Gibson is encouraged by other breakthroughs that should support the patch.
“Recent progress includes islet cloning, adult brown-fat stem-cell programming to create islet cells, and the use of porcine islets,” Gibson says. “For transplantation and a functional cure, new islets from any of these sources would require immune-protection — and that technology is at hand. With all of this encouraging news, our development efforts will now go into high gear.”
Encapsulife’s future R&D will include Phase I clinical trials on human subjects. The company and its just-patented invention face many steps on the road ahead. However, they have gained enormous ground since their inventor and his basic findings returned safely to Earth.