Cure for diabetes could lie in tiny device; Alberta researchers looking for volunteers

EDMONTON – The world’s first human trial of a device that could potentially transform the lives of people with Type 1 Diabetes by eliminating insulin injections is now under way in Edmonton.

Dr. James Shapiro, director of the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at the University of Alberta, is the lead Edmonton investigator of the trial.

“This is potentially much closer to a cure for diabetes than what we’ve been doing up to this point.”

Eight ViaCyte devices, containing progenitor pancreatic cells, are implanted into participants. The hope is that this cell therapy could one day eliminate the need for insulin injections, by producing insulin themselves.

“This is a tiny device we can put under the skin. We take them in and out at different time points. We can see if the cells are surviving,” Shapiro said.

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“The beauty of this device is that it prevents the immune system – the cells of the immune system – from getting direct contact with the stem cells so they can’t destroy them.”

READ MORE: Canada’s diabetes rate worse than the U.S.: report 

Shapiro said the purpose of the first in-human trial is to prove the devices are safe, not to get participants off insulin. After the safety of the devices is confirmed, researchers could ramp up the dosing or implant more devices into participants.

Edmonton man one of two participants

Kerry Elliott, 48, is the first participant in Canada to take part in the human trial. Elliott is an account executive with Global Edmonton.

Elliott has had Type 1 Diabetes for 33 years and has been hoping for a cure.

Familiar with Dr. Shapiro’s work with the world-renowned Edmonton Protocol for islet transplantation, he reached out to investigators when he heard about the stem cell research.

“It’s pretty amazing to think they could actually cure this disease,” he said.

Doctors started implanting the devices in Elliott in August – two were implanted in his arm, two beside his belly button, two about an inch away from them and another two on his side.

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“I’m feeling great. It wasn’t like having a kidney transplant or something where you’re off work for weeks. I was sore for a couple days,” he said of the surgeries required.

So far, six of the devices have been removed for researchers to examine; the remaining two will stay implanted for two years.

Elliott needs approximately four to five insulin injections every day. Though his insulin dependence hasn’t changed with the devices yet, Elliott said he is excited to be part of a trial that could make history.

“Down the road, if they do get a cure through this, I’ll be back in the line up.”

The research team is looking for more volunteers- specifically health adults with Type 1 or 2 Diabetes. For more information on the trial, click here or call 780-407-1493.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article originally stated human embryonic stem cells are in the devices. It was updated December 16 to clarify that they contain progenitor pancreatic cells.

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