Stem Cell Therapy Implant Shows Promise For Type 1 Diabetes

Stem Cell Therapy Implant Shows Promise For Type 1 Diabetes

Dec. 11, 2023 – An experimental device containing millions of stem cells significantly reduced the need for insulin shots among people with type 1 diabetes, according to a new study – a treatment researchers say may someday provide a cure for the chronic, life-altering condition.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health used tiny implants filled with lab-grown pancreatic cells known as VC-02. 

The study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, involved 10 people who at the start of the study could not produce insulin naturally. After 6 months with the implant, three of them showed significant improvement. Their bodies spent more time within the normal blood sugar range, reducing their need for external insulin. 

“The hope is to get these cells strong enough to help stop requiring insulin injections all together,” said David Thompson, MD, principal investigator at the Vancouver trial site and clinical director of the Vancouver General Hospital Diabetes Centre. “I believe this is going to turn into a cure as soon as 2024.”

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the immune system destroys insulin-making cells in the pancreas, known as beta cells. Insulin is a hormone that regulates sugar in the blood. The condition – sometimes called juvenile diabetes – is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 4 and 6 and in early puberty.

In the United States, people who are non-Hispanic and White are most likely to have type 1 diabetes, and it affects men and women at about the same rates. Having a close family member with the illness increases risk. About 1.24 million people in the United States live with type 1 diabetes; that number is expected to reach 5 million by 2050.

With type 1 diabetes, it’s as if the body’s insulin factory has shut down. People who have the disease need to take insulin from the start.

This differs from type 2 diabetes, in which the body doesn’t use insulin properly. It can be managed with lifestyle changes, medications, and sometimes external insulin shots.

Until a century ago – when insulin was discovered – diabetes was a death sentence. A 14-year-old boy who lay dying from diabetes in a Toronto hospital was the first person to receive the new treatment in 1922. Within 24 hours, his high blood glucose levels dropped to near-normal levels.

“Insulin therapy for people with type 1 diabetes is better than it has ever been, but it’s still not a cure,” Thompson said. “This is probably the first wave of a new era of medicine using cell therapy.”

The trial tested an experimental cell therapy developed by biotechnology company ViaCyte.

Thompson and his colleagues used devices implanted just beneath the skin, about the size of a small bandage. Unlike a glucose monitor – which is also inserted beneath the skin but only estimates blood glucose levels – the stem cell device delivers a steady supply of insulin to the body. 

The trial builds off of a 2021 study that showed this approach could help the human body produce insulin. The latest study increased the number of devices for each person and improved the design to help the lab-grown cells survive. 

All the people in the study started out with no insulin production and had surgery at sites in Vancouver, Belgium, and the U.S. to get up to 10 device implants each. After 6 months, three of them showed clear signs of insulin production that stayed steady throughout the yearlong study. One person in the study had showed notable improvement, spending more time in the target blood sugar range and reducing their need for extra daily insulin by 44%.

“Each device is like a miniature insulin-producing factory,” said co-author Timothy Kieffer, PhD, a professor with the departments of surgery and cellular and physiological sciences at the University of British Columbia, and past chief scientific officer of ViaCyte. The cells are “packaged into the device to essentially re-create the blood sugar-regulating functions of a healthy pancreas.”

A cure for type 1 diabetes would also mean preventing several other health complications related to the illness: blindness, kidney problems, limb loss, and even life-threatening blood sugar drops during sleep. Diabetes also significantly heightens the chances of having a heart attack or stroke.

The trial has two big limitations, said Robert Gabbay, MD, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, who was not involved in the trial. Not only is it small, but the technology failed to normalize blood glucose levels, which is the goal. 

But it shows promise, he said. Cell replacement therapies have previously faced a major barrier: The immune system attacks the implanted cells, requiring potentially harmful immunosuppressive drugs.

“This is particularly problematic for people with type I diabetes since the initial cause of type 1 is an autoimmune destruction of beta cells,” Gabbay said. “Placing beta cells sequestered from the immune system has been something that a number of investigative teams have worked on. This early study shows some proof of concept.”

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