A macroporous heparin-releasing silk fibroin scaffold improves islet transplantation outcome by promoting islet revascularisation and survival

Acta Biomater. 2017 Sep 1;59:210-220. doi: 10.1016/j.actbio.2017.06.039. Epub 2017 Jun 27.


Islet transplantation is considered the most promising therapeutic option with the potential to cure diabetes. However, efficacy of current clinical islet transplantation is limited by long-term graft dysfunction and attrition. We have investigated the therapeutic potential of a silk fibroin macroporous (SF) scaffold for syngeneic islet transplantation in diabetic mice. The SF scaffold was prepared via lyophilisation, which enables incorporation of active compounds including cytokines, peptide and growth factors without compromising their biological activity. For the present study, a heparin-releasing SF scaffold (H-SF) in order to evaluate the versatility of the SF scaffold for biological functionalisation. Islets were then co-transplanted with H-SF or SF scaffolds in the epididymal fat pad of diabetic mice. Mice from both H-SF and SF groups achieved 100% euglycaemia, which was maintained for 1year. More importantly, the H-SF-islets co-transplantation led to more rapid reversal of hyperglycaemia, complete normalisation of glucose responsiveness and lower long-term blood glucose levels. This superior transplantation outcome is attributable to H-SF-facilitated islet revascularisation and cell proliferation since significant increase of islet endocrine and endothelial cells proliferation was shown in grafts retrieved from H-SF-islets co-transplanted mice. Better intra-islet vascular reformation was also evident, accompanied by VEGF upregulation. In addition, when H-SF was co-transplanted with islets extracted from vegfr2-luc transgenic mice in vivo, sustained elevation of bioluminescent signal that corresponds to vegfr2 expression was collected, implicating a role of heparin-dependent activation of endogenous VEGF/VEGFR2 pathway in promoting islet revascularisation and proliferation. In summary, the SF scaffolds provide an open platform as scaffold development for islet transplantation. Furthermore, given the pro-angiogenic, pro-survival and minimal post-transplantation inflammatory reactions of H-SF, our data also support the feasibility of clinical implementation of H-SF to improve islet transplantation outcome.

Statement of significance: 1) The silk fibroin scaffold presented in the present study provides an open platform for scaffold development in islet transplantation, with heparinisation as an example. 2) Both heparin and silk fibroin have been used clinically. The excellent in vivo therapeutic outcome reported here may therefore be clinically relevant and provide valuable insights for bench to bed translation. 3) Compared to conventional clinical islet transplantation, during which islets are injected via the hepatic portal vein, the physical/mechanical properties of silk fibroin scaffolds create a more accessible transplantation site (i.e., within fat pad), which significantly reduces discomfort. 4) Islet implantation into the fat pad also avoids an instant blood mediated inflammatory response, which occurs upon contact of islet with recipient's blood during intraportal injection, and prolongs survival and function of implanted islets.

Keywords: Graft survival; Heparin; Islet transplantation; Revascularisation; Silk fibroin scaffold.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Survival
  • Drug Implants
  • Fibroins* / chemistry
  • Fibroins* / pharmacokinetics
  • Fibroins* / pharmacology
  • Heparin / chemistry
  • Heparin / pharmacokinetics
  • Heparin / pharmacology
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / metabolism*
  • Islets of Langerhans Transplantation / methods*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Porosity
  • Transplantation, Isogeneic


  • Drug Implants
  • Heparin
  • Fibroins