Stem Cell Research and Diabetes - guest post

Stem Cell Research and Diabetes
by Raymond Barglow, Ph.D. (guest post!)

One day there will come from our nation’s laboratories a functional cure for Type 1 diabetes. But how long, Oh Lord, how long have we been waiting? Dare we anticipate now that there will be a solution in the not-too-distant future?

Stem cell research has the potential to build insulin-producing cells that will render injections no longer necessary. And indeed there are several companies, including one on the East Coast and another here in California where I live, that may be closing in on a solution.

One of these companies is Viacyte, located in San Diego, whose President and CEO, Paul Laikind, spoke to Diabetes Hands Foundation’s Emily Coles this past January (see the interview here). Viacyte is now testing a stem cell-based remedy for diabetes on human patients. Don Reed, patient advocate and author of a new book entitled “Stem Cell Battles: Proposition 71 and Beyond,” tells the story of the arduous path that Viacyte has taken to get to today’s clinical trial. As Don explains, this small biotech company has received funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and from JDRF, and its scientists “are using a device half the size of credit card. This would be implanted under the skin. Called ‘an encapsulation medical device,’ Enceptra, it contains cells designed to replace those taken by the disease…. Porous as a tea bag, it has holes so small the body’s attack cells (the immune system) can’t get in to kill the good cells, but the life support nutrients can enter – and the insulin gets out.”

Robert Klein, the person who led the effort to obtain public funding for CIRM (3 billion dollars!) told Don Reed that the Viacyte project is “one of the most important projects CIRM has ever funded.”

Scientific research these days is a team effort, requiring cooperation not only among the scientists in a single lab but also among researchers who may be scattered around the globe, working in diverse environments that include universities, hospitals, and private companies.

But competition too can help to drive the search for truth and cures forward. Competing with Viacyte, which is associated with the University of California at San Francisco, is a company back in Cambridge Mass., Semma Therapeutics, associated with MIT and Harvard laboratories. As if that were not complicated enough, Viacyte has recently partnered with the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, while Semma has teamed up with Novartis.

Semma relies upon research done In the Harvard laboratory of Douglas Melton, where a method has been invented to generate billions of insulin-producing beta cells. These cells develop in islet-like clusters, and work in animal models has established that they can control blood glucose levels.

A good number of stem cell researchers and advocates are inspired by their experience with degenerative illness in their own families, and often that illness is diabetes. Robert Klein, mentioned above, who served as the first President of CIRM, has a son with Type 1 diabetes. Doug Melton from Harvard has a son and daughter with Type 1 diabetes. In fact, the history of stem cell research has been interwoven from the beginning with the pursuit of knowledge about and a cure for diabetes. Stem cells hold promise for tackling many illnesses, among them Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease and spinal cord injury. But diabetes may the disease that first surrenders to curative cell regeneration.

Don Reed’s book, by the way, provides an inside view of the stem cell research saga over the past dozen years, and he writes with wisdom, spirit, and a sense of humor. You can learn more about Don’s stem cell research mission in life from a CIRM webpage that honors his contributions.