SWEET A potential cure for type 1 diabetes is on the horizon by kerry gold
Five-year-old Corin Cao wears an insulin pump at her little waist, a constant reminder of her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. The pump is crucial – it regulates the amount of insulin Corin needs throughout the day in order to stay alive. Her mother Jessie Zhang carefully monitors her diet and amount of exercise, checks her daughter’s blood glucose levels every day and ensures the pump is kept clean and functioning. Jessie quit her job as a computer programmer to take care of her daughter. She visits her regularly when she is at daycare, where teachers have also learned to test Corin’s blood sugar. Five or six times a day, Corin’s finger is pricked with a pin to obtain a drop of blood for the test. “She’s used to it and now starting to learn to test the blood sugar herself,” says Jessie. But one day, if all goes according to plan, Corin and thousands of other children like her could undergo pancreatic islet transplant surgery to potentially cure them of diabetes altogether. No more pumps or injections or dietary restrictions or finger-prick blood tests. Their bodies would function normally. Islets are scattered throughout the pancreas and contain beta cells that produce insulin. Those are the cells that have been destroyed in the bodies of people with type 1 diabetes. Research at BC Children’s Hospital is underway to replace those islets with healthy ones that will take over as the body’s normal insulin-production factory. They are getting closer to a cure, but there is still work to be done. “It’s potentially curative,” says Dr. Bruce Verchere, head of the 8 speaking of children spring 2014
Diabetes Research team at the Child & Family Research Institute at BC Children’s. “There have been about 500 islet transplants done worldwide. And for a while, the recipients got their blood sugars under control and they didn’t need insulin. “But in most of the patients, the transplants fail, and we don’t understand why. Immune rejection is part of it for sure. But there’s probably a bunch of other factors going on. We’re trying to find ways to enhance [the beta cells’] function, their survival, make it so that they last forever in the patient.” As well, Dr. Verchere and his research team are trying to find ways to protect the cells from immune rejection so that patients won’t have to endure harsh immunosuppressive drugs, which have risks and side effects.