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Canadian researchers continue to drive efforts towards finding a cure for diabetes and today they are focused on using stem cells to treat the disease.MICHAEL DALDER/Reuters

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Cate Murray is President and CEO of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to power life-saving therapies and technologies through regenerative medicine research for the benefit of all

Diabetes is one of the most common conditions, affecting more than 5.7 million Canadians across the country. As common as the disease is, it’s also expensive – the costs of treating diabetes nationally have soared from $14 billion in 2008 to almost $30 billion in 2019, and both the prevalence and associated costs are only expected to continue to rise in the years to come.

Diabetes is caused by the lack of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas that is responsible for regulating blood sugar. According to Diabetes Canada, there are three major types of diabetes – type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes, which occurs in pregnancy and is usually only a temporary condition. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most common.

There are many different reasons why a person may develop diabetes, which includes ethnic background, family history, environment, and overall lifestyle. And some populations are at higher risk of developing certain types of diabetes, such as those of African, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, or South Asian descent. Generally speaking, and depending on the type, diabetes is managed through insulin injections and regulating diet to ensure the body’s blood sugar stays within a normal and safe range.

There is no common cause for the disease, and to date, no ultimate cure – but science is getting close, and stem cells may hold the answer.

Stem cell research to treat diabetes

2021 was significant for those living with diabetes as it marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, pioneered by two Canadians. This extraordinary advancement in medical science is one that has saved millions of lives globally. A century later, Canadian researchers continue to drive efforts towards finding a cure for diabetes and today they are focused on using stem cells to treat the disease.

Stem cells are commonly known as the “building blocks” of the body. They are unique because they have the capacity to self-renew by dividing and developing into more mature, specialized cells. Stem cells have the potential to differentiate into any cell type and can regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues.

Since 2016, Canada’s Stem Cell Network has funded over 15 projects, including clinical trials, that are advancing potential treatments to tackle diabetes. Additionally, Stem Cell Network continues to support the training of young scientists who are interested in fighting diabetes using stem cell-based approaches.

Canada is a true hot bed for stem cell and diabetes research. For example, in Ontario Dr. Cristina Nostro at University Health Network is working to eliminate the need for daily insulin injections by using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to create insulin-producing beta cells. Meanwhile, in Québec, Dr. Corinne Hoesli from McGill University is using bioengineering to create new encapsulation technologies (or systems of delivery) for the transplantation of islets, or pancreatic cells that produce insulin.

Most recently, Dr. Timothy Kieffer and his team at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health helped to demonstrate that a stem cell-based treatment can produce insulin in patients living with type 1 diabetes. Clinical trial patients enrolled in the study were surgically implanted, just under the skin, with cell-containing devices about half the size of a credit card. Each device contained millions of lab-grown beta cells, responsible for making insulin. Months after implantation and observation, the research team confirmed that the beta cells survived, had matured, and were producing insulin.

Dr. James Shapiro from the University of Alberta is using his 21 years of experience in islet transplantation to find ways to replace the damaged beta cells in people with various forms of diabetes. His team’s strategy is to use beta cells grown from a patient’s stem cells to replace the damaged beta cells in people with type 1, type 2, and surgical diabetes caused by the partial removal of the pancreas. Using a patient’s own stem cells to make “self-islets” would help the transplanted cells to be accepted by the patient’s immune system and remove the need for anti-rejection drugs. Ultimately, Dr. Shapiro and his team hope to also address the Canadian biomanufacturing gap by developing a scalable solution to advance therapies for millions of people living with diabetes across the globe.

Scientific advances such as these have the capacity to not only transform the quality of life for the thousands of Canadians living with diabetes but also to greatly reduce the economic burden of the disease.

So, when it comes right down to it, what most Canadian families really want to know is this: just how close are we to a cure for diabetes? The answer is – we’re getting closer. There is still work to be done, but Canadian stem cell researchers are making important advancements and testing approaches through clinical trials. We’re closer than we have ever been before, and stem cell research will be part of the solution.

Learn more about stem cells with additional articles and resources from Let’s Talk Science.