Brightlands Innovation Challenge prize winners MERLN and M4I work together

A remedy for type 1 diabetes

Worldwide, around 800 million people suffer from type 1 diabetes, commonly referred to just as diabetes. The only available treatment is daily injections of insulin. Aart van Apeldoorn of the research institute MERLN, located at the Brightlands Maastricht Health Campus, is working on a better solution: an implant containing the crucial healthy cells that diabetes patients are lacking. Martin Paine of the research institute M4I is helping Aart to gain a “clear picture” of it all. This research has yielded them the first Brightlands Innovation Challenge, and an award of € 10,000.

In 2016, Aart van Apeldoorn moved from Twente to Maastricht to conduct research at the brand-new MERLN institute on new treatment options for diabetes. Martin Paine obtained a fellowship in the research group led by scientist Ron Heeren, and was brought to Maastricht to head up the new research institute M4I, short for MultiModal Molecular Imaging Institute. The two met by coincidence. “I saw the announcement for the Brightlands Innovation Challenge,” Aart says, “and thought I could really use the award money to finance part of my research. Scientists can always use funding since new problems, questions and challenges always crop up during the course of a project. During my own research, I ran into a problem making biomolecules in the immediate environment of cells clearly visible. Ron Heeren referred me to Martin, so he and I we sat down together, and the next day we had our project proposal nailed down, just in time for the deadline.”


Theirs proved to be the winning proposal out of a total of 28 submissions. Jury chairman Jan Cobbenhagen presented the award and the corresponding cash prize of € 10,000 during the Brightlands Science Forum at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). The pitch they gave that day undoubtedly played a role. “We didn’t turn it into a dry, scientific discourse, but instead, gave a short presentation in which we emphasized the social importance of our research. Our message was essentially asking how great it would be if we can lay the groundwork for a revolutionary treatment for diabetes, right here in Maastricht. Try to say no to that.”

Terrible disease

Social relevance was one of the three hard criteria required for proposals to be eligible for the award. No one had any doubt that this was the case here. “Type 1 diabetes is a terrible disease. The beta cells in the pancreas of a diabetes patient no longer produce insulin because the islets of Langerhans, as they are known, are destroyed irreversibly. Patients must constantly monitor their blood sugar levels and sometimes inject artificial insulin five times per day, and even so, the disease still has adverse effects on their health in the long-term. Their blood vessels weaken, nerves become damaged and blindness often sets in.”

There is another option: implanting healthy beta cells with islets, from a donor. “This technique has many disadvantages however. The cells are injected directly into the liver, but 60% of them don’t survive this procedure. The patient must take a lot of medication to prevent rejection, and the treatment must be repeated at least two times in order to ensure the patient has enough good cells. Also, there are not enough donors. Another solution would help many millions of people. In the Netherlands, there are over 130,000 patients.”


At his facility in Maastricht, Aart van Apeldoorn is currently studying a way to apply groups of insulin-producing cells one by one to a film - 450,000 of which are needed per transplant - and to implant this film in the patient. “The first tests using mice at another institute have gone well. In Maastricht, we are now looking for the most suitable carrier and a way to apply all these cells in tiny little squares. We think that this method of implanting will be much less invasive, the cells will receive the maximum level of support, and just one treatment will help the patient for seven to ten years. This is a major gain.”

Martin Paine nods in agreement. Like Aart van Apeldoorn, the Australian researcher was deeply affected by the idea of finding a remedy for type 1 diabetes. “Definitely,” he says. “I came to Maastricht to do research at the new M4I institute, at the cell level. This is a world-class institute and a fantastic place to start a research career. The combination of MERLN and M4I yields unique possibilities for pioneering research, such as this study on the treatment of type 1 diabetes using an implant. It is a very concrete and promising development. Because we have access to a very unique mass spectrometer at M4I, I can provide Aart with image materials showing the exact protein structure of such an implant. The fact that we have won the award serves as an added incentive.”


This imaging possibility is indispensable for Aart van Apeldoorn. “Absolutely. It is crucial in order to move forward. It’s fantastic to have a neighbor with access to the right equipment and know-how. This is a great example of cross-over, interdisciplinary collaboration. We are also currently evaluating whether or not we can produce the implant using bio-materials, and I ultimately also want to be able to replace donor cells with beta cells made from the patient’s own stem cells. This is all still some way off, but these are all research disciplines that you find at the campuses in Maastricht and Geleen. Maybe in a few years we’ll all look back on this year as being the one in which the foundations were laid at Brightlands for a remedy for diabetes.”