Although Israel isn’t among the top 10 countries in the world with a high prevalence of diabetes in its population, it is on the forefront of several research studies that are moving quickly toward finding a cure for the condition while the innovative technology created in Israel’s labs is transferred seamlessly to the private sector for development.
According to the World Health Organization, 347 million people had diabetes worldwide in 2012, and it expects the number of those who develop the disease to double by the year 2030. In 2011, the International Diabetes Federation estimated that 366 million people had the condition and that number will climb to 552 million by 2030.
To guard against the killer disease, doctors recommend exercising, not smoking, not drinking alcohol, and maintaining a normal body weight to lessen the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which occurs due to the body’s inability to regulate insulin.
Type 1, often called juvenile diabetes, develops because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to regulate the blood’s glucose content.
People with Type 1 inject insulin to manage the condition, but Dr. Eli Lewis, the head of the Clinical Islet Laboratory at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in partnership with the University of Colorado, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia universities, went further. He not only developed a method for successfully transplanting healthy, insulin-producing cells into a diabetic pancreas, but went on to discover a second use for an FDA-approved drug, already in use for other conditions, that prevents the inflammation and subsequent rejection of those new cells that often occurs in these patients, who must then return to injecting insulin.
‘‘We transplant healthy pieces of pancreas, called islets. Those are the cells that are missing from the Type 1 diabetes patient,” said Lewis in an Israel21c news video. “It’s the closest thing that we can consider a cure.”
When Lewis applied the drug alpha1-antitrypsin to the grafted-in cells, the unexpected breakthrough was more than he and his team could have hoped for in the lab.
“It turns out, in a study that was done in collaboration with us and Harvard-Boston, that if you induce diabetes in a mouse, and you administer our therapy, you correct diabetes without the need for transplantation,” he said. “We found a drug that we are going to use.”
In that study, researchers injected the drug into mice. After two to four weeks, the transplanted cells remained healthy and functioned properly in the pancreas. The study was so successful that researchers were able to discontinue the therapy.
Type 2 diabetes patients may also benefit from this technique since inflammation of the cells also plays a part in that condition.
“I’m very optimistic as to the findings,” added Lewis.
In a related development, BGU scientists and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Prof. Shulamit Levenberg have developed a three-dimensional blood vessel network to accompany grafted-in engineered pancreatic tissues that were derived from insulin-producing islets and transplanted in a diabetes patient.
Those cells supported by the cluster of blood vessels more effectively lowered the blood sugar levels in diabetic mice.
Levenberg devised this technique because without dedicated blood vessels feeding the transplanted cells, a transplant has been shown to be more prone to failure.
Levenberg and her team are beginning to start trials using human subjects.
And finally, Prof. Benyamin Glaser, the head of Endocrinology at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Schools and Prof. Yuval Dor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada have been studying what makes insulin-producing “beta cells” replicate and regenerate.
Glaser told Xinhua News that he and his colleagues found that the more overloaded the beta cells there are — that is, the more glucose they are exposed to — the more insulin they will create.
“The problem with the work overload is that it ‘stresses’ the beta cells and many tend to malfunction,” Glaser said. “We’re still working on that — on finding a way to stress the beta cells without any malfunctioning, but we’ve already managed to find the connection between high glucose levels and the beta cells replication.”
The study was also done in collaboration with researchers from the diabetes section of Roche Pharmaceuticals.
“We’re not talking here about a cure for diabetes, that’s still far in the future,” Glaser added, “but we have opened a path that can lead to a cure.
“In two years, we could see the first steps to a cure, by using a drug that’s already being developed and by manipulating two or three drugs that are already on the market.”