Living in the United States, we are often stuck in a bubble of US-centric news. This is true for diabetes as much as any other topic. But as World Diabetes Day attests to, diabetes is hardly just an American thing. In reality, there's much more going on in the global diabetes research arena than you might think (since our media announcements are pretty much limited to, err, Boston, Miami and the Bay Area). So today, here's a quick look at what's up with diabetes research around the world:
Last month, a group of D-bloggers visited the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami and got a glimpse at some of the work going on there. But what you might not know is that the DRI shares their facilities with researchers in many countries, as part of the Diabetes Research Institute Federation.
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Sweden: The Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden and the DRI partnered on research to help scientists view transplanted insulin-secreting cells while they are inside a living organism. The project, which was originated in Sweden by Dr. Per-Olof Berggren, PhD, transplants pancreatic mouse islets into the anterior chamber of a mouse's eye, which allows them to watch the vascularization of the islets and also to watch the immune attack on the islet cells. While I don't think anyone wants islet cells transplanted into our eyes, this research is helping scientists "watch" the process of diabetes unfold — and learn.
Argentina: The DRI is working with Dr. Rodolfo Alejandro, MD, professor of medicine and director of the clinical islet cell program at the DRI on clinical trials that have the potential to benefit both people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Using a novel protocol involving stem cells and oxygen therapy, scientists are using a person's own stem cells and high oxygen levels to help regenerate insulin-producing cells. Right now they're doing the clinical trials in Europe, Asia and Latin America, as well as Miami, in people with type 2 diabetes. If successful, this technique could be used for people with type 1 diabetes as well.
The DRI isn't the only organization working on internationally to find a cure for diabetes. Here are a couple of other organizations working hard:
Germany: DeveloGen, a biopharmaceutical company based in Cologne, is also working on beta cell regeneration. Beta cells are the particular islet cells that produce insulin, so regenerating them could potentially reverse type 1 diabetes and also help treat type 2 diabetes. DeveloGen has identified a "secreted molecule" to screen for potential beta cell regeneration targets. For people with type 2 diabetes, DeveloGen's beta cell regeneration factor stimulates beta cell proliferation, thus increasing beta cell mass, and helps the body produce sufficient insulin. They are currently working with JDRF to advance new drugs that would stimulate beta cell regeneration into clinical trials (they're currently in pre-clinical trial mode).
New Zealand: On the far side of the world, Dr. Bob Elliot and his team at Living Cell Technologies has begun clinical trials in xenotransplantation — the process of transplanting cells between species, in this case, from a pig to a human — in Russia and New Zealand. What they're doing exactly is transplanting specially encapsulated porcine cells (the pig cells) that produce insulin into patients in hopes that these cells will take hold and not be killed off by the patient's immune system. According to their web site, clinical trials are being conducted in a small number of people: 10 in Russia, 4 in New Zealand. In October 2009, they reported a successful implantation by a minimally invasive surgical procedure into the abdomen of a 47-year-old man who has had type 1 diabetes for 20 years. They are still looking for people for the clinical trial, though there are heavy restrictions on xenotransplantation in many countries, including the United States (obviously!) so it would probably take some "medical tourism" for Americans to participate in these studies. Dr. Elliot recently wrote an op-ed for the Australian publication Life Science about the struggle for public and governmental acceptance of this procedure, as not everyone is comfortable with this kind of animal-human sharing.
Certainly this is not an exhaustive list. Lots more is happening out there. It's just meant to remind you that our best hope for a cure may come from outside our borders some day, so keep your eyes on the horizon. And don't be discouraged by media headlines that deceptively report "breakthrough" after "breakthrough": remember that research is a slow and incremental process, whereas the media deals in flashy headlines. Still, keep in mind that media coverage of diabetes research is a good thing! Think of the alternative...