Minglin Ma wins Hartwell award for diabetes work

Minglin Ma

Minglin Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, has received a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award, which supports scientists pursuing biomedical research to advance children’s health.

Ma is one of 12 individuals representing nine institutions across the U.S. to have won the award, which will provide support for three years at $100,000 direct cost (reimbursement) per year. The award recognizes early-stage, innovative biomedical research.

Ma, who joined the Cornell faculty in 2013, was recognized for his work, “Engineering a Cellular Thread for Juvenile Diabetes.” Juvenile or Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-secreting islet (beta) cells of the pancreas responsible for controlling the level of blood glucose. T1D affects as many as 450,000 children in U.S.; 15,000 children are diagnosed every year.

The Ma Research Group’s work involves developing a radical new cell-encapsulation device, termed “cellular thread,” designed to be biocompatible, mechanically strong and easy to handle, implant and retrieve. Cellular thread can be precisely prepared and scaled to deliver a large number of islets without compromising cell-packing density.

Other strategies to achieve a cure focus on transplanting pancreatic donor cells, a procedure requiring islet cells from a donor and the suppression of the immune system for the recipient. That method, while promising, has been limited in use due to the severe shortage of human donor cells and the requirement of life-long immuno-suppression to block the autoimmune reaction, according to Ma.

“Islet encapsulation overcomes the autoimmune problem by holding the insulin-producing islet cells in an implanted device that protects them from immune rejection while still allowing their active response to the level of circulating blood glucose,” Ma said. “Cellular thread could offer a breakthrough cure that is safer, easier to perform and has the added benefit of extending the limited sourcing of islets from human donors.”

Ma’s group intends to implant the loaded device percutaneously in mice and dogs through a minimally invasive procedure, which will also allow for convenient retrieval. If successful, this project will lead to a paradigm shift in treatment for T1D and greatly benefit numerous children in the U.S. who suffer with this disease, Ma said.

The Ma group works to develop novel biomaterials and engineering approaches to package live materials – ranging from single cancer stem cells to multi-cellular organisms – for diagnostics, disease modeling and therapeutic applications. Current focus areas include cancer cell growth, liver disease modeling and T1D treatment.

This year’s Hartwell Award winners were recognized for work in molecular biology, infectious disease, medical diagnostics, medical devices and neurobiology.

The Hartwell Foundation’s mission is to fund early-stage, innovative and cutting-edge biomedical research to benefit children in the United States. The general aim is to provide funds for early stage research projects that have not yet qualified for funding from traditional sources.

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