Is the end of diabetes on the horizon?

Medical researchers and doctors have high hopes for a promising new diabetes treatment that could lead to a cure for the widespread disease.

ViaCyte, a company dedicated to regenerative medicine, and Johnson&Johnson’s Janssen BetaLogics have teamed up to test a new embryonic stem cell treatment that could potentially make the disease completely manageable and, hopefully, lead to a cure someday.

The companies have agreed to combine research efforts and hundreds of patents (145 completed and 565 pending) in order to speed up the process. The potential solution, which has worked incredibly well on animals, began its human trials last year. It is the first treatment of its kind to enter human trials.

Diabetes is a disease that is potentially life threatening, and unfortunately, increasingly common in today’s society. According to the American Diabetes Association, 29.1 million people in America alone are living with diabetes; 1.25 million with type 1 (that number is growing steadily), and approximately 27.85 million with type 2. It is a scary statistic that is on the rise due to the epidemic of obesity and sedentary lifestyles in the world.

Many efforts have been made in the past in order to help ease the symptoms of the disease (the most notable of these discoveries made by Sir Fredrick Banting, who was the first to use insulin on humans). However, no discoveries have come close to this new, promising treatment for the disease.

What is Diabetes?

The first ever recorded description of diabetes comes from the Ebers Papyrus, dated to around 1550 BCE. It is described in terms of urinating too often and the remedies for this condition, known as polyuria. Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia described it in 250 BCE as the ‘melting of flesh and bones’ and was the first to call it diabetes; the disease is never directly referenced in Hippocratic writings from the time, but symptoms of the disease are mentioned.There are two main types of diabetes.Type 1:

  • generally develops in children or teenagers and is always treated with insulin injections
  • occurs when the body attacks and kills beta cells of the pancreas, meaning little to no insulin is released into the body. This means that sugar builds up in the blood instead of being converted into energy
  • includes latent autoimmune diabetes in adults, which is a term used to encompass the small number of adults with apparent type 2 diabetes that appear to have an immune system that, like type 1, attacks the pancreatic beta cells
  • increases if a family member has the disease; definite risk factors are not yet known
  • 10 per cent of people with the disease have type 1

Type 2:

  • generally develops into adulthood, but is becoming more common in children due to obesity
  • occurs when the body can’t properly use the insulin that is created and released; may not make enough insulin, either. Sugar builds up rather than being converted to energy
  • sometimes requires medication and insulin to help control blood sugar; mainly managed through meal planning and physical activity
  • those at risk for type 2 diabetes include: those of high risk groups (those of Aboriginal, Asian, Hispanic, or African descent), those with high blood pressure and/or cholesterol, and those who are overweight (and typically carry that weight around the stomach)
  • 90 per cent of people with diabetes suffer from type 2

Some people can also develop short-term diabetes during pregnancy, called gestational diabetes. Being diagnosed as diabetic while pregnant can increase the risk of developing diabetes later in life for both mother and unborn child; there is approximately a 30 per cent chance of the mother developing type 2 within 15 years of giving birth.

Those with the disease may eventually develop much more serious conditions. While many people know about foot problems that can arise from diabetes, and the need to use special socks so as not to constrict the leg or foot, there are more serious conditions that can arise from having either type of diabetes. These include chronic kidney disease, eye disease leading to blindness, heart attack, stroke, nerve damage, and the potential for non-traumatic lower limb amputation (typically of the leg, feet, or toes).

Treatments for all types of diabetes include insulin, physical activity and/or weight management, nutrition/meal planning, medication, and lifestyle management, which includes reducing stress so as to keep your blood pressure at an acceptable number.





About the cure (and the partnership) 

ViaCyte and Johnson&Johnson have both been researching and attempting to cure the disease for well over ten years, and Johnson&Johnson has been a major investor in ViaCyte for many years. This new therapy involves inducing stem cells in a petri dish to turn into insulin producing cells, which are then inserted into a small capsule (which is extremely thin and smaller than a business card) and then placed under the skin.

This way, should anything go wrong, the capsule can be removed immediately while preventing further harm to the patient.  The capsule is used to protect the invading cells from the immune system, which would attack them as invaders without it. Twelve weeks after insertion, the device had attached to blood vessels and the new cells were still multiplying without any side effects.

The product was extremely successful when tested on mice, who were able to produce the required hormone for their lifespan. Currently, only 12 human diabetic patients are enrolled in the study, but more are expected to be accepted at the end of 2016. So far, the trials are one year into testing, but researchers with the companies are confident in the outcome.

 Only the Beginning

Many efforts have been made in the past in order to help ease the symptoms of the disease (the most notable of these discoveries made by Sir Fredrick Banting, who was the first to use insulin on humans). However, no discoveries have come close to this new, promising treatment for the disease.

Dr. Janet Hux, Chief Science Officer for the Canadian Diabetes Association, believes in the potential of the capsule as a solution to make diabetes more manageable, but believes the word cure should be used with caution. “There is a disappointing number of promising treatments that work in mice that don’t translate well into humans,” says Hux, “but even if it doesn’t translate well into successful human intervention, a lot will have been learned to get us closer to that success story.”

Dr. Hux said that the C.D.A. has given funding to this research in the past, and they are eagerly watching the results of the trial, as stem cells have great potential in advancing treatment and the search for a cure. She also said that the first first Canadian, a person from Edmonton, was enrolled in the trials last year. After all, she says, it isn’t actually a cure because something is there just preventing the disease from taking effect on the people who suffer from diabetes; while it isn’t as good as totally eliminating the disease, this could provide a great improvement to quality of life for people who have type 1.

While Dr. Hux remains cautious, but optimistic, the rest of the world is celebrating an advance in one of the world’s most common diseases.

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