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Diabetes Project

The unlikely combination of stem cells and seaweed are providing a novel approach for treating type 1 diabetes. 

Type 1 diabetes is currently incurable, can be life-threatening, and, unlike type 2, can't be prevented through better diet and lifestyle choices. In 2015, the disease claimed 800 Australian lives.

Professor Bernie Tuch has been searching for a cure for more than 40 years. He’s getting close to it with the help of the unlikely combination of stem cells and seaweed.

Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, making the body unable to manage blood sugar.

“Without insulin, you die,” Bernie says. “Sugar levels affect your performance: your cognitive capacity, your ability to think, your ability to act, and you may sometimes behave in a bizarre way when you don’t intend to.

“If they get too low, it’s an emergency; you fall into a coma. There are also cases of ‘dead-in-bed syndrome’ where people have died unexpectedly in their sleep.”

Currently, people with type 1 diabetes manage their condition using insulin pumps or multiple daily injections.

Prof Bernie Tuch (left); Glucose monitors, injections, tests, and insulin pumps are part of the daily challenges of living with diabetes (right).

While these treatments keep people alive, Bernie points out that they’re not perfect. On average, people with type 1 diabetes have a lifespan 12 years shorter than those who don’t.

Bernie and his colleagues in Australia and Israel are developing an alternative approach.

They’re using stem cells to produce new insulin-producing beta cells and encasing them in protective micro-capsules made from alginate – a gel-like substance obtained from seaweed. The micro-capsules are arranged on special scaffolding inside a small device that is transplanted under the skin.

The device allows nutrients into the capsules and insulin to flow out into the blood stream while protecting the beta cells from the malfunctioning immune system.

A number of labs around the world are developing similar therapies. However, some are using devices in conjunction with anti-rejection (immuno-suppressant) drugs, which can have serious side-effects and make patients vulnerable to infections such as pneumonia.

“We argue that you can’t justify the use of anti-rejection drugs in most people with type 1 diabetes,” says Bernie.

The design and approach of the device allows it to be placed just underneath the skin where the body’s immune system is less vigilant than it is near the pancreas.

Bernie and his colleagues at the Australian Foundation for Diabetes Research have conducted pre-clinical trials in mice at the University of Sydney.

“We’ve successfully and safely brought the test animals’ blood sugar levels down to normal for up to three months, and we’ve done so without the use of anti-rejection drugs,” he says.

At present, he and Israeli colleagues are repeating the experiments with human insulin-producing cells derived from stem cells by Kadimastem, a biotechnology company that uses patent protected knowhow developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Functional and safety studies are continuing, but Bernie hopes to start human trials in 2022, roughly in time for the 100th anniversary of the first use of insulin in the treatment of diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes typically affects a younger population. The average age of onset is 13 years. Bernie is cautious, ambitious and hopeful.

“Having been in the field for several decades, I’ve learnt the importance of not creating unrealistic expectations for people with type 1 diabetes. But we reasonably think this will be a treatment in use in a decade.”

The costs of bringing a new treatment to human trials is in the order of a million dollars.

With your support, the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia wants to help fund Bernie’s research and bring this life-changing treatment to clinical trials.

The Foundation is aiming to provide $1 million in funding for this project and will match, dollar-for-dollar, every donation made. Donations must be at least $500 and the total of donations made cannot exceed $500,000.

The Foundation is very pleased that the Lions District 201N3 Diabetes Foundation (based in Newcastle) has kicked off the campaign with a very generous donation of $40,000, which after the matching $40,000 was provided by the Foundation, resulted in $80,000 being provided for this vital research.

“If we want Australia to be involved, we need alliances like that of AFDR and the Foundation, supported by donors,” says Bernie. “I’m very grateful for the donations – they go a long way to support our pre-clinical work.”

Make a donation to the Foundation’s Diabetes Project fund.