Dr. James Shapiro, University of Alberta

Patient-derived Stem Cells (self-islets) as a Potential Cure for Diabetes

Diabetes is one of the most common conditions, affecting more than 300,000 Canadians. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that over the past 10 years, new cases of diabetes have cost Canada’s health care system $15.36B. Diabetes is caused by the lack of insulin, a hormone produced by the islet beta cells in the pancreas that is responsible for regulating blood sugar. Efforts to transplant islet beta cells have been successful in regulating blood-sugar levels in some patients with type 1 diabetes, but doing so means patients have to deal with lifelong anti-rejection drugs, and a shortage of donor organs hampers a wider rollout.

For patients facing a lifelong journey of blood sugar monitoring, insulin injections, and careful meal planning, what if there were a treatment and eventually a cure? Dr. James Shapiro, Professor of Surgery at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in Transplantation Surgery and Regenerative Medicine, is looking to cutting-edge stem cell research for the answer.

Dr. Shapiro is using his 21 years of experience in islet transplantation (including his ground-breaking Edmonton Protocol for islet cell transplants) 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 various forms of diabetes, including 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.

The team will also address a pressing Canadian biomanufacturing gap, and work to scale up the production of sufficient self-islets for transplantation into patients; the self-islets will then be evaluated in a clinical trial. Ultimately, Dr. Shapiro and his team hope to develop a scalable solution to advance therapies for millions of people living with diabetes across the globe.