As many as three million Americans, mostly children, suffer from type 1 diabetes. However, a cure may soon be found by scientists at Iowa State University who have developed a polymer from algae that protects insulin-producing cells in the body.

Kaitlin Bratlie, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and chemical and biological engineering, leads a team of researchers at Iowa State who have found a way to encapsulate insulin-producing cells harvested from swine with alginate, a polymer derived from seaweed. Test results showed the encapsulated insulin would survive the body’s immune system.

The work involves using imaging of biomaterials in live tissue to create a better molecular-level understanding of tissue responses to foreign bodies. She also is studying a reaction that can happen when blood or tissue comes in contact with foreign materials and that often causes a rejection of that material. To round out the study, she will explore enzyme reactions on the surface of the implanted biomaterials.

While clinical trials are still years away, Bratlie said the early research shows promise, adding the studies also may offer hope for treating certain cancers or in helping the body accept skin and other organ transplants.