June 3, 2011

Closing in on a type-1
diabetes cure

We just celebrated Memorial Day, a time to honor those who have fallen in battle. Like most people, I despise war in all its forms. My heart goes out to those sent to fight and risk their lives, and for those innocents caught in the mayhem. But for all the horrors of war, sometimes it is the mother of invention in medicine. And the terrible injuries of one airman might pave the way for a cure for diabetes in our lifetime.

Tre Profirio went to Afghanistan as a U.S. airman. He returned to the U.S. with bullet-destroyed pancreas. Doctors had to remove what was left of his pancreas. They sent the tissues to a university where, with gentle heat and enzymes, the doctors harvested insulin-producing islet cells. Then they infused these precious cells into his liver where they found a welcoming home. The cells quickly resumed their function, producing insulin with perfect blood sugar control. Of course, they had to take steps to protect the cells from too much stress while they got used to their new home. But his success made international news.

So how can this help diabetics? Diabetes is a destructive disease with a toll of hundreds of billions in medical costs. This case simply preserved insulin function in a war-injured pancreas. That’s a far different condition than metabolic diabetes type-1. In this disease, the islet cells slowly die.

However, the procedure is extremely exciting. Harvesting islet cells from early diabetes patients might provide a mechanism to buy lots of time to figure out what is attacking and killing the islet cells. Then, they could restore the islet cells. With the stress gone, they could cure type-1 diabetes by transplanting the diabetic's own cells. This beats transplants from cadavers and animals, since there is no rejection.

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Unfortunately for the millions of type-2 diabetics, this is not an answer. These diabetics often have plenty of insulin. It’s just that a toxic diet has rendered their body resistant to even the extra insulin their cells make. It’s only a matter of time until their islet cells burn out simply from over production.

Research is ongoing to discover a means to coat and protect islet cells from immune attack. I’m a great fan of technology like this. This is not a chemical suppression of symptoms. It is restoring cells. Type-1 diabetics should take heart. We’ve taken a huge leap forward in finding a cure.

Subscribers of my Second Opinion newsletter read a few years back that infusions of cayenne extract into type-1 diabetic pancreases restored production of insulin. This suggests that these cells could still be alive, only turned off due to ongoing inflammation. Research needs to turn toward finding the cause of islet cell attack (dairy, chemicals, infection, etc.), and make key advances in stem-cell therapies. If it did so, we could see harvesting of remaining viable cells and a cure for this disease in our lifetime.

Ref: Dr. Camillo Ricordi, University of Miami Medical School's Diabetes Research Institute.

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