This past weekend, 17 of the leading researchers in the diabetes community traveled to San Diego, CA, to speak at TEDxDelMar, an exciting day-long conference focused on the latest breakthroughs and continuing challenges in the search for a cure. Although the cure was the main focus of the day, TEDxDelMar also featured discussions on living well with diabetes (with talks including Dr. Steve Edelman and Dr. Bill Polonsky) and the future of diabetes technology (with an update from Dr. Bruce Buckingham).
If you're unfamiliar with TED, it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and is a conference series launched in 1984 with the sole mission of sharing "ideas worth spreading." In recent years, TED has evolved to include TEDx, which are smaller, grassroots events independently planned and organized, following some basic guidelines set out by the larger TED organization. Among those guidelines is the requirement that all the presentations — which are kept to a strict limit of 18 minutes or less — are filmed and made available to an audience of millions. About 100 people attended this event in person.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend and hear from some of the top minds working in the field of diabetes cure research. Here are a few highlights:
- "Pigs rule!" was the mantra of Dr. Bernhard Hering, a researcher the University of Minnesota. Dr. Hering shared that there is strong pre-clincial evidence suggesting that pig islet cells could be even more successful in humans than using actual human islets. One pig islet transplant in the liver of a monkey with diabetes has been successful, and the animal has so far gone 275 days without any evidence of immune attack. They're able to use less potent immuno-suppressant drugs as well, which is also safer, he says.
"This is real. This is important. This could really be turned into a treatment with far-reaching implications," Dr. Hering says.
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- After having diabetes for decades, what do you think the odds are that your body is still making beta cells? Probably not very high, right? According to Dr. Peter Butler, director of the Larry Hillblom Islet Research Center at UCLA. There's actually a strong probability that you are still making your own beta cells. They have seen this in mothers with diabetes who suddenly make more beta cells during pregnancy. Scientists are trying to determine whether or not beta cells are actually regenerating, or whether all beta cells are dying when the autoimmune system attacks, and still continue to divide — just not in quantities that are useful to us. Dr. Butler showed evidence that an 82-year-old man was still making his own beta cells, over 50 years after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Wow!
- Dr. Jeffrey Bluestone from UC San Francisco and Dr. Mattias von Herrath from the La Jolla Institute of Immunology both spoke about the role the immune system plays in the onset of diabetes, and also the "re-onset" of diabetes that happens when islet cells are replaced in a person with diabetes. Dr. Bluestone explained that cells from your bone marrow travel to your thymus, where they come out "educated about what they need to fight." Somewhere in there, rogue cells leave the thymus and think that your beta cells are the enemy, causing them to kill off your insulin production. A big question scientists are working on answering is why the thymus or the cells do this, and how to re-train your immune system not to attack the beta cells, but without stopping your immune system from fighting off actual foreign invaders, like the flu. Dr. von Herrath is one of the scientists working on intervening in this process.
I was also very lucky to have a chance to speak with some of the researchers presenting at TEDx, who were kind enough to share some messages about the work they are doing:
The entire day was incredibly educational and really drove home that while there is so much work to be done, there are also a lot of strides being made in diabetes research. Official videos of the TEDxDelMar event will be available on the TEDxTalks website over the next few weeks, and I highly encourage everyone to watch them!
A great closing thought comes from Dr. Maike Sander, whom we interviewed last fall and who is working on stem cell research:
"It wouldn't be science if we knew exactly how to do it. You know you can get to your goal, but you're not exactly sure how to get there. Take an educated guess and try, and you will hit a roadblock, but you will learn something, so the next time you try, you will go a little further. It will only be a matter of time before we figure out all the steps."
In other words, we'll get there someday... we just need to take it one step at a time.