Diabetes research always seems to be making the news...
I know what you're thinking: "Quick, hide the mice!" and "Don't say the C-word!"
And yes... you're on high alert for adjectives like "imminent," "breakthrough" and "soon."
Yep, we feel you.
Yet behind all the hype and media frenzy is some growing promise in all that's happening now on the diabetes research front. Yes, there is a glimmer of hope and reason to be excited -- even if it's not to the level that the sensational headlines suggest.
Here are six exciting D-research projects that have been on our radar lately:
Stem Cell Derived Success: On Oct. 9, news media began trumpeting the story of longtime researcher and D-Dad Douglas Melton at Harvard University, who's been working on a line of stem cell research for almost a quarter-century since his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
What they did was create mature beta cells using human stem cells that can be grown from a potentially unlimited supply, and these are shown to behave and make insulin inside our bodies just like the real thing! This process might take months, and as of now the treatment is years away from being in human trials. But at least mice have shown success with this, like most of the other research we hear about.
This has been touted as an incredible breakthrough and it does promising, but the main challenge that remains is figuring out the immune system's response to these cells and preventing the attack, so that T1D doesn't just keep restarting when these cells are repeatedly made and destroyed.
We have seen a boatload of news coverage on this, from mainstream media to peers in the D-Community like Insulin Nation. Yes, many overreacted; but not everyone did. This Nature article seems to have one of the most balanced takes on this research we've seen. Getting past the "cure is imminent" and we're "curing mice" messages... this does seem to be a promising step forward.
Cell in a Box: This news story from Wednesday caught our eye, about a new living cell encapsulation platform known as Cell in a Box technology. A Maryland company called Nuvilex acquired rights to develop this tech in November 2013, which would use a protective cocoon about the size of a pinhead to encapsulate about 10,000 living cells to produce insulin, or even for other diseases beyond diabetes. As the company says, this live-cell encapsulation differs from other efforts because it uses cellulose instead of other substances, so the encapsulation platform would in theory be more robust and able to be more easily implanted by needle or a catheter. The cells might even be able to remain in the body for more than two years. And notably, researchers say it would not elicit the usual immune system response that destroys the insulin-producing cells -- which could have huge implications if it proves true and successful. Where is it now? Well, it's still in the mouse phase of research and there's no word yet on timeline for human trials.
JDRF Projects: Earlier this week, the JDRF hosted an hour-long research update call -- the first of a series that the type 1D-org plans to start doing once a quarter, to provide the community with a way to directly access the researchers behind this science. On that call, we heard from Dr. Jessica Dunne and Dr. Albert Hwa who both work in JDRF's cure therapeutics division, talking respectively about prevention efforts and encapsulation work the group is supporting.
"Without prevention, we won't be able to cure diabetes," Dunne said, leading into stats about the rise of type 1 in kids and how more research shows genetics aren't playing as much a factor in type 1 development as are unknown environmental factors (?!). What stood out to me was hearing that if you're a kid with two of the antibiodies for T1D, you have roughly an 85% chance of developing the illness in the next decade, and from there on it seems close to 100%. Yikes!
We've also heard just in the past day about more JDRF money going to three research centers globally to help find a cure.
On Tuesday's call, Hwa also discussed his focus on encapsulation research and the various projects that JDRF is involved with, including Living Cell Technologies that uses a cell pouch and others such as ViaCyte that's made the most news.
ViaCyte: As it turns out, the San Diego, CA company that's been a long-time researcher of stem cell use for encapsulation is moving forward with its JDRF-funded human trials of VC-01. This treatment involves implanting a special encapsulation device called Encaptra (with embryonic stem cell-derived cells inside) under the skin of PWDs in order to allow those to mature into pancreatic beta cells to produce their own insulin. In early October, ViaCyte launched its first FDA-approved clinical trial on this research at UCSD. The first procedure is happening this month, and a second could happen as soon as mid-November. The two-year trial involves 40 people at as many as six yet-to-be-named sites, with San Diego being first.
**Update:** News of the first human patient to receive the ViaCyte encapsulation device was announced Oct. 29, 2014.
The Beta-Air Artificial-Pancreas: We were intrigued to hear JDRF talk about a new Israel biomedical company called Beta 02 Technologies, working on an another encapsulation device that would house islet cells, known as the Bioreactor Beta-Air device. Not to be confused with the Artificial Pancreas tech that combines an insulin pump with CGM, this would be an implanted treatment and "potential cure" for type 1. It includes what's called an "immune protection unit," 68 millimeters by 18 millimeters wide, that you would plant under the skin just right of the belly button.
Within this Bioreactor, the cells are implanted into a hydro-gel structure that keeps them protected and able to thrive, possibly enough so those dreaded immunosuppressive drugs would not be needed as they are with conventional islet transplantation. You'd be able to replenish this device through the two ports connected to it under the skin, with a quick procedure that takes just two minutes to complete, we're told.
Apparently, the first patient had this device implanted overseas and eight others will be enrolled in a study at Uppsala University Hospital in Sweden. The JDRF has been funding this company and the research, awarding Beta-O2 a grant last month for half of the $1 million needed for the two-year pilot study on safety and efficacy.
DRI BioHub: Outside of the JDRF and its partners, we're also closely watching where the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) is going with its latest in research on the BioHub. Remember, that encapsulation device that caused a stir back in March 2013?
Well, earlier this year, the DRI received word from FDA that it could move forward with an early phase clinical trial to test a possible location for the BioHub. In this pilot trial, researchers will transplant donor islet cells into the apron-like lining of the abdomen using what's called a "biodegradable scaffold." Researchers will combine the patient's own plasma with the islet cells, put it inside the body, and then add a clinical-grade enzyme in order to create a gel-like material that sticks to the abdomen and holds the islets in place. That part of the abdomen is then folded over, creating a pouch around the scaffold and sealing in the transplanted islets. If the research is successful, the patient's body will absorb that platform over time (biodegrade) and start forming their own beta cells to produce insulin -- but patients will have to take immuno-suppressive drugs to ward off attack of the new cells.
The DRI is currently screening participants for this pilot clinical trial and future studies, so if interested, you can get info and fill out an application here.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts in the D-research department these days. It helps to keep watch on what D-research blogger and type 1 Joshua Levy is reporting about; he's so smart, I usually have to read his posts several times to even start getting my head around the issues.
While some of these projects may be many years off, it's still encouraging to know the research is happening and progress IS being made... even if the headlines have no business implying the C-word is coming any time soon.