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The Non-Stick Stem Cell?

Certain stem cells, coated with a material known popularly as Teflon, have been shown to be delivered to their destination in the body without triggering an immune response.

In a study that has implications for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes and the successful transferring of stem cells, researchers have shown in mice that transplanted pancreatic precursor cells don't come under attack from the immune system when encased in polytetrafluorethylene (also known as PTFE, or by its DuPont brand name, Teflon).

The study, by scientists at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, appears online in the journal Transplantation. While Type 1 diabetes relies on an autoimmune response that kills insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, the research team showed that the PTFE-coated precursor cells, after transplantation, grew into functional cells, meaning they proved responsive to glucose and could control blood sugar levels.

The use of these un-differentiated precursor cells, as opposed to cells already differentiated into specific types, also improved the transplant’s success rate.

“The results exceeded our expectations,” said Pamela Itkin-Ansari, assistant adjunct professor at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Burnham, in a press release announcing the study. “We thought that T-cells, although unable to penetrate the device, would cluster around it. But we found no evidence of an active immune response, suggesting that the cells in the device were invisible to the immune system.”

Two different mouse models were used in the study. One research team inserted mouse islet cells into other mice to show that the cells, encapsulated in PTFE, were protected from the immune system. Next, human cells coated in PTFE were transplanted into immunodeficient mice in an effort to compare how both mature pancreatic cells (already differentiated) and precursor cells fared inside the device.

The findings of Itkin-Ansari’s research team — that transplanted cells can become fully functional beta or pancreatic cells —could point to a new method for transplanting stem cell-derived tissue. One of the foremost obstacles to cell transplantation therapy for diabetes is the need to suppress the autoimmune response for an extended period of time — usually via drugs, which can entail health risks.

While it may seem strange, at first glance, that the same stuff coating your frying pan could lead to a stem cell breakthrough, PTFE — which is very nonreactive chemically and an excellent lubricant — has a long history in medical research and treatment. It is used in vascular grafts, sutures, bone replacement procedures and in many kinds of surgical implants.

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