Paves the way for injection-free diabetes treatment

A groundbreaking discovery by a University of Alberta research team has opened new doors in the quest for a cure for diabetes. By refining the process of generating insulin-producing pancreatic cells from a patient’s own stem cells, they have taken a significant step towards injection-free treatment.

The research, recently published, introduces a novel approach involving pancreatic progenitor cells and an anti-tumour drug called AKT/P70 inhibitor AT7867. This innovative method achieved an impressive 90 percent success rate in producing the desired insulin-producing cells, a significant improvement over the previous success rate of just 60 percent. Importantly, the new cells demonstrated a reduced tendency to form unwanted cysts and accelerated the achievement of insulin injection-free glucose control when transplanted into mice.

James Shapiro

James Shapiro

Nerea Cuesta Gomez

Nerea Cuesta Gomez


Photo by Sweet Life

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The potential implications of this safer and more reliable method are far-reaching. If successful in further studies, it could pave the way for transplantation without the need for anti-rejection drugs.

James Shapiro, Canada Research Chair in Transplant Surgery and Regenerative Medicine, and head of the Edmonton Protocol, shared his vision, saying, “We want to replace the need for insulin injections with cells that produce the same hormone – insulin – that will regulate blood sugar in a perfect manner.” The Edmonton Protocol, developed 21 years ago, has facilitated 750 transplantations of donated islet cells. However, recipients of donated cells face a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs, and the shortage of donated organs remains a significant challenge.

Shapiro emphasized the importance of finding a solution that offers a limitless source of cells and ensures that these cells are not recognized as foreign by the immune system. The team achieves this by taking a patient’s own blood stem cells and using a process called “directed differentiation” to transform them into insulin-producing cells.

Nerea Cuesta-Gomez, a postdoctoral fellow with the Clinical Islet Transplant Program directed by Shapiro, explained, “The cells used for this research were pancreatic progenitors, cells that can be further differentiated in the lab to generate cells that release insulin.” She added that in subsequent stages of differentiation, they aim to eliminate the remaining 5 to 10 percent of cells that do not become pancreatic cells.

Remarkably, the research yielded positive results across various types of diabetes, including Type 1, Type 2, and surgical diabetes resulting from pancreas removal, effectively reversing the condition.

Shapiro remains cautiously optimistic, emphasizing the need for further safety and efficacy studies before progressing to human trials. Nevertheless, he expressed excitement about the potential impact of their work. “What we’re trying to do here is peer over the horizon and try to imagine what diabetes care is going to look like 15, 20, 30 years from now,” he said. “I don’t think people will be injecting insulin anymore. I don’t think they’ll be wearing pumps and sensors.”

Reflecting on decades of diabetes research, Shapiro described this project as the “most costly, the most ambitious, but also the most exciting” one he has ever participated in.

| Staff

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