UMN clinical trial may ease treatment for Type 1 diabetes

The trial will last two to three years.

Michelle Griffith

An ongoing University of Minnesota clinical trial is one of the first to test a cell replacement therapy to treat Type 1 diabetes.

The surgically implanted pouch contains islet cells, which act like a pancreas and produce insulin. If successful, the treatment would ease management of the disease for patients who often rely on daily shots.

ViaCyte, a California-based company focused on treating patients with diabetes, created the product and chose the University to test it along with three other research institutions, said lead researcher Dr. Melena Bellin.

“ViaCyte chose us because of our reputation,” she said. 

The trial is in phase one, which means researchers are evaluating the device’s effectiveness. Researchers expect the trial will last two to three years.

The device is implanted in the patient’s lower back and arm, where the cells — stem cells that don’t come from aborted fetuses — produce insulin, said Dr. Ty Dunn, a surgeon and researcher working on the trial. Blood flows through the device, and insulin, which converts sugar to energy, enters the bloodstream. 

Patients can still apply to participate in the trial, but applicants must go through an extensive screening process.

“We are very frank with patients. We have to make sure they’re willing to take the risk,” Dunn said, adding that there’s a possibility the therapy might not work.

Prospective participants are evaluated based on physical and mental screenings, as well as reliability. Taking medication on time, showing up for regular appointments and staying in regular contact with doctors are also necessary so extraneous factors don’t affect the trial, Dunn said.

Researchers select patients who have virtually no insulin in their bloodstream so they can be sure that the device is working if insulin is detected in their bloodstream, Bellin said. 

An estimated 1.25 million people have Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. 

“It’s something you constantly have to think about,” said Becky Barnett, the director of youth and family initiatives for the American Diabetes Association who also has Type 1 diabetes.

Common symptoms of Type 1 diabetes include extreme fatigue, blurry vision, weight loss and feelings of extreme hunger or thirst.

Even though Barnett has lived with diabetes for over 30 years, she remains hopeful that research — like the islet trial — will improve quality of life for people with Type 1 diabetes.

“We always want to find a better way of doing things,” Dunn said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the nature of the clinical trial. The trial is using a cell replacement therapy. The article also misstated the number of research institutions testing the therapy. Three institutions are testing the therapy.