MIT offshoot Sigilon Therapeutics is developing an implantable insulin-producing device that could eventually make injections obsolete.

Sigilon recently partnered with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company to develop ‘living drug factories’ which are made of encapsulated, engineered cells that can be safely implanted into a patient’s body to produce insulin for months or even years. The technique could eventually be used to engineer cells capable of secreting other hormones, proteins, and antibodies.

The technology is based on research performed over the last decade at MIT and has led to the creation of a device that can encases cells and protect them from a patient’s immune system. The researchers used this with engineered cells that produce a target therapeutic, such as insulin.

The devices are tiny hydrogel beads, about 1mm in diameter, that are implanted into patients through minimally invasive procedures.

MIT associate professor, co-founder and co-inventor of the device Daniel Anderson said: “This allows us to have ‘living drug factories’ inside our bodies that can deliver therapeutics, at the right amount and in the right location, as needed. The hope is that this living device can be placed in a patient, avoid the need for immune-suppression, and provide long-term therapy.”

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In early April 2018, Sigilon partnered with Lilly to use Sigilon’s encapsulation technology, called Afibromer, to develop a treatment for type 1 diabetes. Under the agreement, Sigilon will receive an upfront payment of $63m, an equity investment, and more than $400m to take the Afibromer devices through clinical trials.

Anderson said: “Lilly is a major player in diabetes treatment, and we will take this forward [to treat diabetes] but we see this as technology that can be used for many applications.”

Sigilon is currently working on other applications for the technology, including ‘sense and respond’ therapies, which involve cells sensing biological signals and responding with a precise dosage of a target therapeutic. Engineered cells could be used to secrete proteins to treat lysosomal storage diseases, treat haemophilia with hormone release or react to inflammatory mediators with anti-inflammatory proteins.

Sigilon’s polymer could also be modified as a coating for implanted medical devices, such as coronary stents or insulin pumps.

Anderson added: “Wires and shunts and pumps all have problems with scar tissue formation. The more we connect things with the body, the more important it will be to have materials that can avoid fibrosis.”