August 23, 2004 – A University of Alberta diabetes researcher has helped uncover a possible new source of insulin for diabetics and a valuable clue in the treatment of neurological disorders.
Dr. Greg Korbutt, a member of the U of A research team that developed the Edmonton Protocol treatment for type 1 diabetes, was part of a research collaboration centred at the University of Toronto that discovered pancreatic stem cells in mice. The finding is important because researchers were able to produce both neurons and insulin-producing cells from the stem cells found in the pancreas.
The discovery could have an enormous impact on the treatment of diabetes. The Edmonton Protocol developed at the U of A aids patients suffering severe forms of type 1 diabetes with transplants of pancreatic islet cells, which produce insulin and free the patients of the need for insulin injections.
"One of our limitations [with the Edmonton Protocol] is the amount of human donor organs that are available for recipients," said Korbutt, who became involved in the research project through the national Stem Cell Network, which funded the project with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The discovery, reported in the current edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology, "could be a potential way of overcoming the supply problem," said Korbutt, adding that he thinks it is "very likely" that pancreatic stem cells will be found in humans.
Researchers could come up with a way of making insulin-producing cells and implanting them in diabetic patients, or they could figure out a way to kick-start the stem cells within the patients so the patients begin producing insulin on their own again.
More than two million Canadian have diabetes. Nationwide, it is responsible for more than 40,000 deaths every year.
The researchers also managed to coax the stem cells into producing neurons, the substance of the central nervous system. Korbutt says that finding is "scientifically a very interesting observation." The finding raises the possibility of developing new treatments for neurological disorders. Patients with Parkinson's Disease, for example, might be helped if the stem cells can manufacture cells that produce L-Dopamine.
Korbutt, a professor and director of the human islet quality control laboratory in the U of A Department of Surgery, said he's impressed with the project, headed up by doctoral students Simon Smukler and Raewyn Seaberg, who are working with Dr. Derek van der Kooy. "It's a great collaboration," he said.
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