May 02, 2018 By Elizabeth McCammon

In 2012, Tim Kieffer, a Diabetes Canada-supported researcher with the University of British Columbia, showed that implanting stem cells (a type of cell capable of becoming any other type of cell in the body) in mice with type 1 diabetes could reverse the disease. Now, researchers at UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health are taking this research to the next level by placing lab-grown stem cells in human participants.

A Vancouver man was the first to receive the implanted cells, in December 2017. Business-card-sized packets of stem cells were implanted just below his skin. The packets are designed to allow blood vessels to penetrate inside, so the millions of cells inside can be bathed in oxygen and other nutrients, encouraging them to grow and become specific types of cells—in this case, beta cells, which sense blood sugar levels and release insulin when needed. A total of 40 people, from Canada and the United States, are expected to participate in the study. They will be followed for two years to see if the implanted cells mature into insulin-producing cells that can control a person’s blood sugar, and whether there are significant side effects.

A similar treatment with pancreatic cells from deceased donors has shown some success. However, donor cells are in short supply compared to stem cells, which can be continuously grown in a lab.

“If these replacement cells restore a person’s ability to produce their own insulin when needed, it would prevent dangerous episodes of low blood sugar and lessen the complications resulting from high blood sugar, such as blindness, heart attack, and kidney failure,” says Dr. David Thompson, a principal investigator in the clinical trial and the medical director of the Vancouver General Hospital Diabetes Centre.

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