Diabetes research yielding breakthrough success

University of Calgary bioengineering team successfully growing insulin-producing cells in lab

Freedom from insulin injections and the myriad of health problems related to type 1 diabetes is closer to becoming reality, thanks to University of Calgary researchers who are developing the first bioreactor procedures to grow pancreatic cells in their laboratory. This opens the door to the possibility of providing a steady supply of insulin-producing cells that can be transplanted into patients affected by this serious disease.

"This is a significant milestone on the path to effectively producing human tissue that may be used to treat type 1 diabetes," said Dr. Leo Behie, professor of chemical engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering and holder of a Canada Research Chair in BioMedical Engineering. "The precursor cell type we are using appears to be a good candidate and brings us much closer to clinical trials," Behie said. "There is a huge international push to find a human pancreatic cell source-- a 'holy grail' of sorts-- that could be used for transplantation. Once it is found, our lab will be ready to grow these cells in a clinically acceptable manner."

In a study funded by the New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to appear shortly in the journal Biotechnology Progress, Behie's team developed bioreactor protocols to produce large quantities of pig pancreatic insulin-producing cells that has set the stage for the large-scale production of islet-like structures containing insulin-producing cells. This work was conducted at the Pharmaceutical Production Research Facility (PPRF) and included U of C colleagues Meera Chawla, Cheryl Bodnar, Michael Kallos and Arindom Sen.

In a second paper available online for the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Behie and colleagues report that they have cultured human cells that are believed to be good candidates for generating islet cells that can make insulin. The study sponsored, by the Canadian Stem Cell Network, included Cheryl Bodnar, Michael Kallos and Arindom Sen, in collaboration with Maria Petropavlovskaia and Lawrence Rosenberg from McGill University's Faculty of Medicine. The successful growth and characterization of these functional islet cells in the lab led to the conclusion that they may be suitable for treating individuals with type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, which requires patients to receive multiple daily insulin injections in order to survive.

"This is very encouraging news for people with type 1 diabetes who look forward to a future without this serious condition," said Donna Lillie, Vice President, Research and Professional Education, Canadian Diabetes Association. "Dr. Behie's all-Canadian team has brought us one more step towards potentially securing a large supply of insulin-producing pancreatic cells for transplantation into individuals with type 1 diabetes."

Scientists at the University of Alberta were the first to successfully transplant islet cells into people with diabetes in 2000, freeing them from insulin injections. Follow-up studies have shown that the transplanted cells continued to function in many of these so-called Edmonton Protocol patients for up to five years. However, a significant bottleneck to treating large numbers of people with type 1 diabetes using this approach is that it takes pancreas cells from as many as three donor cadavers to supply enough for one patient transplant.

"Injecting islet cells into people with diabetes has gotten people off insulin. The problem is there aren't enough cells available to treat everyone," Behie said. "If we can expand cell populations in our bioreactors, we'll be able to supply everyone who needs them and dramatically improve their quality of life."

About 10 per cent of Edmonton Protocol transplant recipients have been able to stay off insulin after five years, and patients are required to take anti-rejection drugs after receiving the new cells. By producing a reliable supply of cells, Behie said he hopes people with type 1 diabetes will one day be able to receive booster shots of islet cells, as required, and that producing cloned cells from individual patients could result in the elimination of transplant rejection issues.

Behie is the only Canadian member of a "dream team" of researchers established by the New York-based Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF) last year in hopes of accelerating the development of new therapies and possible cures for type 1 diabetes. The 16 researchers from 13 universities around the world are trying to uncover the cause of type 1 diabetes that affects more than 19-million people worldwide, and investigating various potential cures including new drug therapies and islet cell regeneration techniques. Type 1 diabetes affects about 19 million people worldwide, while type 1 and 2 diabetes affects approximately 194 million.

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For more information:
Dr. Leo Behie's website: www.eng.ucalgary.ca/resrch_chem/Chem_Behie.htm
Canadian Diabetes Association: www.diabetes.ca
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International website: http://www.jdrf.org
JDRF Regeneration of Beta Cell Function Program: www.jdrf.org/index.cfm?page_id=103204

News conference, interview and photo opportunities:

A news conference with Dr. Leo Behie, members of his bioengineering team, representatives from the Canadian Diabetes Association, and an Edmonton Protocol transplant recipient will take place in U of C's Pharmaceutical Production Research Facility from 10 am to 12 pm on Thursday, March 16, 2006. The news conference will be followed by lab tours and one-on-one interview opportunities. The lab is located in Room 519 on the 5th floor of the Biological Sciences Building. See U of C campus map at: http://www.ucalgary.ca/map/map_big.html
Meter parking is available in Lot 28.

Media contact: Grady Semmens
Media Relations Advisor - Research
University of Calgary
Phone: (403) 220-7722 Cell: (403) 651-2515
Email: gsemmens@ucalgary.ca


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