Technology changes in diabetes treatment

Vancouver Coastal Health and UBC work together on study on new Type 1 diabetes advancements for patients



This story was originally published on Nov. 28, 2023. 

A new B.C.-based study is showing promising results for people with Type 1 diabetes who are using a prototypical stem cell-based device to reduce reliance on drugs and daily insulin injections. 

As part of the study, conducted out of several medical locations including UBC and Vancouver General Hospital, a small device has been inserted into abdomens of 10 people to help produce insulin. Three participants showed “significant markers of insulin production” six months into the study, which they maintained  for the rest of the one-year period, according to a UBC press release. 

People with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, cannot create insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. Many must take daily injections or take immunosuppressants instead.  

If the study results continue on this path, a treatment could eliminate a dependence on these methods. 

Barbara Allan, an endocrinologist and a study coordinator, said the researchers are on their way to creating a “functional cure,” noting that a “true cure” would make an individuals’ pancreas create the insulin it needs. 

These devices use stem cells that create “immature” pancreas cells in hope that they will grow into “fully functioning” cells that will help regulate blood sugar levels through insulin creation. 

Angel Alvarado has lived with Type 1 diabetes for a decade. Though diabetes has helped the 20-year-old motorcycle apprentice connect with others like him, experiences like being hospitalized and the financial toll of the condition remain a struggle. 

“It would just generally make quality of life so much easier,” said Alvarado, who spends $400 a month “just to stay alive.”

He purchases Dexcom glucose transmitters for his diabetes every three to four months. 

Alvarado hopes the device becomes widely available to help others in his position. 

“Hopefully this turns out to be something that’s extremely productive, and does come to the common market soon,” said Alvarado. 

David Thompson, Clinical Assistant Professor at Vancouver Coastal Health and the study’s principal investigator for its Vancouver site, said that people with Type 1 diabetes still face potential complications even with insulin shots. While insulin still helps individuals, these shots cannot “achieve normal blood sugars.” 

People who take immunosuppressants have increased chances of short-term headaches but also more serious impacts such as infections and cancer. 

However, due to developments by tech company CRISPR, stem cells can be packaged in a way that limits upsetting the immune system. 

Thompson and Allan said they were grateful to the participants, knowing that studies like this don’t guarantee a benefit. 

“It’s not a cure, it’s not a treatment, it’s a study,” said Allan. “But it’s a great advance to now have cell packages that require less or no immune suppression.” 

Thomas Elliott, medical director and founder of BC Diabetes, said the idea of using stem cells has been “kicked around for 20 years,” but technology has improved greatly. 

“It’s just a question of getting enough of these cells in,” Elliot said. “And doing the necessary scientific experiments to prove to the community of diabetes specialists like me that it’s safe and effective.” 

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