'A big milestone on the road to success': Cell-based therapies may reduce treatment needs of people with diabetes

University of Alberta scientists have used pancreatic cells to help patients produce insulin.

Chris Arnold 4 minute read January 13, 2022
Diabetes equipments - seamless pattern.

This further research will optimize insulin production in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes patients. GETTY

Scientists have successfully given people pancreatic cells grown from stem cells for the purpose of producing insulin. 

Researchers from the University of Alberta were able to provide Type 1 diabetes patients with the new cells, with 35 per cent of patients showing signs of insulin production after eating within six months.

The study was published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine

Researchers implanted two small devices — one about the size of a stamp and the other roughly half the size of a credit card — into patients. The devices were filled with stem cell-derived pancreatic endoderm cells that matured into PEC-01 cells; these cells essentially turn into pancreatic cells. Multiples of the devices were implanted. 

“This is a very positive finding,” James Shapiro, professor of surgery and first author said in a statement. “It’s not the endgame, but it’s a big milestone along the road to success, demonstrating that stem cell-derived islet therapies are safe, and can begin to show some signal of efficacy in patients in the clinic.”

There were 17 patients who received the implants: 63 per cent showed evidence of insulin being produced inside the device after one year. 

Adult diabetes patients between 22 and 57, in six areas across Canada, the United States, and Europe, received the devices, which were filled with millions of cells. Inside both the person and the device, the cells transformed into islet cells, which are found in the pancreas and produce insulin. Initial data from the study suggests that stem cells that can be propagated to the correct biomass, or fuel, may be able to provide a fully renewable alternative to pancreatic islet transplants. 

“The idea of the multiple small devices was so that we could remove them at different time points to see — are the cells surviving?” Shapiro said. “Are they working? And are they doing what they’re supposed to do?”

Shapiro said no safety concerns were raised from the study. “It is remarkable and exciting that the patients tolerated these devices and the surgeries so well.”

One patient in particular, who had 10 total devices implanted in her body around the arms and abdominal wall, significantly reduced her insulin dose, which shows the potential effectiveness of the new treatment, Shapiro said. Each of the subjects was given at least four of the larger devices, and up to six of the smaller ones.

Researchers already have their next steps planned, with a trial set to start this year involving scientists transplanting pancreatic cells that were genetically engineered to remove targets that normally attack Type 1 diabetes patients’ immune systems. Essentially, the team wants to develop “stealthy cells” that can be transplanted without the need for anti-rejection drugs, Shapiro says. 

This further research will optimize insulin production in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes patients. 

Roughly 10 per cent of people living with diabetes have Type 1, according to diabetes.ca, and as of 2019, one-third of Canadians had diabetes or prediabetes.

Shapiro has been working towards improving diabetes treatments for decades, calling the process a marathon. 

“We’ve seen a lot of advances in the last 100 years since the Canadian discovery of insulin,” Shapiro said. “The race isn’t over yet, but we’re on our last laps and I really do believe that we can cross that ribbon. Cell-based therapies have the promise to deliver something far better than insulin therapy.”

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here.
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