A Vancouver man is the first Canadian to receive an experimental stem-cell therapy aiming to reverse his Type 1 diabetes diagnosis.
The untested stem cell treatment revolves around restoring the body’s natural ability to produce insulin, researchers from the University of British Columbia announced this week.
Until now, the stem cell therapy has only been tested in diabetic mice, to positive results. If the human trials yield similar findings, this new treatment could lead to the “potential reversal” of Type 1 diabetes, says Dr. David Thompson, principal investigator of the trial’s Vancouver arm, and medical director of the Vancouver General Hospital Diabetes Centre.
“This is basically what everybody has been waiting for.”
ViaCyte, a San Diego biotechnology company, has been testing its new therapy at centres across North America, including Vancouver and Edmonton.
Their process involves implanting three, wafer-thin packets of cells under the skin of a patient’s abdomen, which are about half the size of a business card.
Currently, they’ve had 40 Type 1 diabetes patients undergo the stem cell therapy, who’ll be monitored over the next two years to see if the chemically-crafted stem cells produce insulin. Insulin is the hormone that regulates our blood-sugar levels in the body, which people with Type 1 diabetes are void of, relying on daily insulin injections to live.
While there’s justified optimism surrounding these trials, it still remains untested in humans, and carries risks.
The body’s cells will naturally attack the foreign cell packets being implanted in the body, meaning patients are forced to use the same drugs organ transplant patients when they undergo the procedure.
This immunosuppression elevates risks of infection, and taking the drug for five years has been linked to higher risks of cancer.
For these reasons, the researchers’ 40 test subjects are patients that are at higher risk of complications from Type 1 diabetes, including the aforementioned Vancouver resident.
The 40-year-old Vancouver patient, Joshua Robertson, fit the profile of the type of patient the researchers needed, rarely experiencing the warning signs associated with dropping blood sugar. These can include shaking and sweating, which may lead to seizures or loss of consciousness.
“That’s the kind of thing that makes me nervous about driving my children,” said Mr. Robertson, diagnosed at age 30, or “being on my own.”
The results have been trying for Robertson, who has spent four nights under observation because of immunosuppression side effects, including chills and a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. He even needed an opioid painkiller to manage the ‘intense burning’ he felt from the stem cell packets.
But, the potential benefits of the experimental treatment are worth it, Robertson says: “I lived for 30 years without [Type 1 diabetes], and 10 years with it,” he said. “I’d like to get back to normal.”
Engineers are already developing a packet design that’s not only less invasive, but eliminates the need for immunosuppression, says Dr. Thompson. He’s like to fashion a membrane “that’s permeable enough to everything except the immune system.”
In the near future, however, the researchers will gauge the trial’s success base on “if these cells produce insulin in humans,” Dr. Thompson said.
In the rodents, the repurposed stem cells took two-to-eight months to begin insulin production; this may be sooner or later in humans.
“Now is the waiting game,” adds Dr. Thompson.
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