Clever Camouflage

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Can diabetes—one of the world’s most challenging medical conditions—be defeated with help from a nano-sized disguise? A UM biomedical engineer seeks the perfect cover for a powerful therapy.

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University of Miami researcher Cherie Stabler is using the concept of camouflage against diabetes.

Staying Under the Body’s Radar
Camouflage helps foot soldiers avoid detection by enemy forces—and helps living creatures elude predators. University of Miami researcher Cherie Stabler is using the concept of camouflage against diabetes, coating the surface of transplanted islet cells with biomaterials to mask them from the body’s immune system.

“It’s called immunocamouflage,” explains Stabler, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and director of the tissue engineering program at the Diabetes Research Institute, who has received a $15 million National Institutes of Health grant to pursue her work.

Clinical islet transplantation is one of the best hopes for curing diabetes. But because these cells, harvested from the pancreas of a donor and transplanted into a patient with diabetes, come under attack from the recipient’s immune system, patients must be given powerful immunosuppressant drugs to ensure the cells’ survival. Unfortunately, these anti-rejection drugs also leave patients open to infections.

Porous, Yet Protective
Stabler’s idea is to encapsulate the cells with “incredibly benign and very biocompatible materials” and to miniaturize these cell coatings from the micron to the nanoscale—akin, she says, to shrinking something from “the size of a football field to a couple of blades of grass. The barrier has to be porous enough to let nutrients in but thick enough to provide sufficient camouflage.”

In pursuit of these super-thin surfaces, Stabler has turned to other disciplines—the production of computer microchips, the drug delivery process, even car-cleaning products—and has assembled a team of chemists, engineers, immunologists, and clinicians. “When you start putting all these minds together,” she says, “that’s when you come up with something more novel.”

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