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New Pig Research Gives Hope for Diabetes Cure

Jan 6, 2010

A Blacksburg, VA, medical company says it is a step closer to finding a potential cure for Type 1 diabetes, tapping pigs as a source of healthy beta-cells. So far it has been successful in monkeys for more than a year. 

Revivicor, Inc., and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, PA, recently reported that by injecting sickened laboratory monkeys with live, pig pancreatic cells, they reversed the monkeys’ Type 1 diabetes.

Tests on diabetic people could begin in two years and, if they are successful, it could usher in one of the first approved human medical treatments derived from living animal cells.

With a global epidemic of diabetes taking shape, medical researchers are looking for answers for people who can’t make or effectively use insulin to convert food to energy.

But Revivicor sees a day when regenerative medicine specialists will replace failing human body parts with healthy animal versions grown in virtually unlimited supplies and genetically altered for compatibility.

The monkey tests showed it can work in a laboratory, officials said.

“We now have survival and a complete cure of diabetes for one year in a monkey,” said David Ayares, Revivicor’s CEO.

Revivicor, a 21-employee, private company in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, allowed University of Pittsburgh officials to announce the monkey results because the transplantations occurred there.

Ayares said the results achieved by the Revivicor-UPMC team are the best in the world in that one experimental monkey maintained a normal blood glucose level without injected insulin or special diet for slightly more than one year.

Just to reach the start of human trials will cost at least $10 million and require two years of preparation. Human tests will run for three to five years after that, Ayares predicted.

Dr. R. Paul Robertson, one of two presidents of the American Diabetes Association, called the work important.

“Like most science, it’s a step forward. They’ve done better using pig islets (pancreatic endocrine cells that produce insulin) than other people using pig islets before,” Robertson said.

The special technique is “not a complete home run,” Robertson said, because the monkeys had to be given drugs to suppress their immune systems from attacking the transplanted cells.

A cure would work with few or no immunosuppressant drugs, which can debilitate the patient, he said. Although immunosuppressive drugs were used, the monkeys remained healthy, researchers said.

According to Ayares, the team’s goal is to use limited immune-blocking drugs — no more, say, than do patients who receive a transplant of human islet cells.

He said the advantage of the Revivicor method would be a virtually unlimited supply of transplant material (because pigs can be bred in virtually unlimited numbers).

To be sure, moving insulin-producing islet cells from healthy pigs into lab monkeys with induced diabetes has been done before, but the beneficial cells did not survive long.

In this case, Revivicor brought to the table a batch of pigs that had been genetically modified to calm the rejection response.

American Journal of Transplantation, Dec. 2009