Diabetes: Life Saving Research

Since the discovery of insulin in 1921, doctors have been searching for a cure for diabetes. After eighty years of research, they're closer than ever to finding it. That's good news for Betsy Ray. Thirty-seven years with diabetes has taken its toll on her. "I've got retinopathy in my eyes. I have cataracts as well. I've got calcification of the heart. I've got kidney disease," Betsy explains. As a type one diabetic, Betsy's body can't make insulin, a hormone necessary for survival. Diabetes Researcher Doctor Gordon Weir says, "One of our dreams for treating type I diabetes, and actually it might be useful for type II diabetes also, is to replace the lost insulin producing cells." Doctor Wier, from the Joslin Diabetes Center, says researchers are close to that dream. They're transplanting islet cells, the cells that make insulin. "That one percent of the pancreas which contains the insulin producing cells is a very small volume of tissue. About just the size of the end of my finger and if we could put that back into a person with diabetes, then we could really get rid of diabetes," says Dr. Weir. Tyler Doctor Larry Wiertz, who works in Endocrinology, agrees. "It's working very well. It's an exciting area of active research in this country and others." It's working so well, doctors get most patients off insulin right way. About 75% are still insulin free after a year. When it works, it's essentially a cure. But not everyone who needs a transplant will get one. "We'd be lucky to get 4,000 pancreases a year to use for transplantation. And every year there are about 35,000 new cases of type I diabetes. So the arithmetic just doesn't work," says Doctor Weir. Hotly debated stem cell transplants could solve that problem. Islet cells from pigs are also possible. Doctor Weir says, "If this therapy is successful, it should get rid of diabetes, almost all of it." Doctor Wiertz adds, "I think that it offers people hope." In other research, Scientist Jeffrey Bluestone says a specific antibody can stop disease progression when given to type I diabetes. "The majority of them, 9 out of 12, ended up making more or equal amounts of insulin than they did at the start of the trial," says Doctor Bluestone. The antibody must be given right after diagnosis. It helps preserve what's left of a patient's own insulin producing cells. Doctors see it as promising. Doctor Bluestone says, "There is no reason why type I diabetes shouldn't be cured. So you know, I hope I'm out of a job." Doctor Wiertz adds, "I'm really optimistic that type I or insulin dependent diabetes, will be cured in this decade. There's no guarantee but, the speed at which we are seeing changes, I'm really optimistic if we can just keep all of our people with type I diabetes healthy until then, I think we'll see a cure." Betsy's body no longer makes insulin, so the antibody won't help her. But she is on a list for an islet cell transplant. "I look at it as a way to perhaps be a pioneer t

Gillian Sheridan, reporting.

Many centers are participating in the islet cell transplant research in the United States and around the world. To find out what centers are participating and to learn more about the research, click here for more information.