A Meeting of the Minds Provides Inspiration

I was recently invited down to Palm Springs by Jim Cook to participate in “A Day of Hope,” a day of researchers speaking at the Eisenhower Medical Center Desert Diabetes Club. For two years, Jim, President Emeritus of the Desert Diabetes Club, has worked on this one day to invite all the people concerned about diabetes in the Palm Springs area to hear scientists talk about the latest research-the things Jim feels offer the most hope to people with diabetes.

From Massachusetts he had Barry Solomon, PhD, who gave a very impressive talk on his work to cure diabetes with a bio-artificial pancreas. What really impressed me in listening to Barry, and anyone who is working with pig islets, is the availability. According to Barry there are 80 million pigs slaughtered for food every year in this country. That means there are 80 million pig pancreases available every year.

To use the pig islets, according to Barry, researchers take islets from specially grown pigs, and insert them in a hockey puck sized device that they put in a patient’s abdomen. The device is attached to an artery and a vein to keep blood flowing through it. The islets are protected from the body’s immune system by a plastic membrane. However, they do sense the body’s blood sugar, make insulin, and stop making insulin when the blood sugar is low enough.

It was just announced that Barry and his staff have been allowed by the FDA to start human trials with this method. Their goal is to prove that it works, and then mass produce the system. The device, called a bio-artificial pancreas, has two ports and would reside near the skin. Once a year it could be flushed and refilled with pig islets using only a syringe.

Among the other speakers was Anice Thigpen, PhD, who spoke about laboratory attempts to create human islet cells from the ground up. She has made some small victories, but Thigpen noted that success was probably at least eight years off.

Russell Potts, PhD, was also there to speak about his non-invasive glucose testing watch. The watch is supposed to work by emitting electrical current which motivates glucose to rise out of the skin. The glucose then soaks into a pad at the bottom of the watch. In theory the device will take a glucose reading every 30 minutes and sound an alarm if blood sugar is too low or too high.

The idea behind the watch has been proven in the laboratory. Russell and a team of scientists ran a current, got a blood sugar solution and ran it through a gigantic machine which verified the blood sugars would track as well as a fingerstick reading. Now all they have to do is compact that into a watch.

Someone in the audience did ask what would happen if a patient perspired. Russell admitted that the device wouldn’t work, but said they are designing an alarm which will indicate if the watch was giving an inaccurate reading. Becton Dickinson recently took a position in this company, which Russell touted in his presentation as proof of their success.

Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD, was on hand to talk about work he has done transplanting human islets. He has successfully transplanted cadaver islets into two patients. It takes six or seven cadaver pancreases to isolate enough islets for one patient.

Patrick pointed out that going completely off insulin should not be the only goal for “curing” diabetes. Patrick seeks to train us to think in terms of preventing the effects of diabetes, not just getting off insulin. If a patient no longer develops diabetes complications, isn’t that enough? His patients take insulin periodically to avoid overworking the islets.

So far, the process has only been performed on patients who are immunosuppressed, but Patrick believes from his research on dogs, that it can be successful with non-immunosuppressed patients. However, it was pointed out that only 2000-4000 human cadaver pancreases are available each year, and there is an estimated 4 million in this country who inject insulin.

There was another scientist, Milton Fuller of Solid State Farms, who wanted to be on the agenda and was not. Milton showed up anyway and tried to lure people back to his suite to see his work on developing a non-invasive glucose meter which uses radio frequency. The buzz was that there would be a lot of wealthy people at the conference who would be interested in funding diabetes research. I didn’t see any money changing hands, but Milton claims he just needs a few thousand dollars to keep going. While Milton is known somewhat as the mad scientist in the diabetes community, he is very bright. Who knows, he may yet be the one who develops the first working non-invasive glucose meter.

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