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Funding the search for a diabetes cure

Groundbreaking diabetes research in Alberta helps forge a U.S. partnership

When Melanie Hibbard’s two children were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she wanted to do more than focus just on treatment for her loved ones.

“As a parent, I felt I’ve got to do something. This can’t be all there is to this,” she said.

For years Hibbard volunteered with organizations for diabetes awareness and mentorship, but it wasn’t until she heard about the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation of Canada (DRIFCan) at the University of Alberta that her approach shifted gears. She knew about the work of Dr. James Shapiro, director of the islet transplant program at the U of A, who with his team developed the Edmonton Protocol for diabetes treatment back in 1999.

“When I met Dr Shapiro, he was starting up his stem cell transplants. He needed a fundraising component," she said.

Hibbard was brought on board as DRIFCan’s executive director and now, she and her colleagues have announced a partnership between DRIFCan and its counterpart in the U.S, the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation (DRIF) at the University of Miami.

Forged by Hibbard and Sean Kramer, DRIF’s chief executive officer, and announced in May 2022, the partnership is a major milestone in finding a biological cure for diabetes. It brings significant new investment from the U.S as American donors augment Canadian supporters with funding.

“This partnership allows us to get into more connecting, more information exchange with the U.S,” explained Hibbard. “But more importantly, it has opened the door for U.S donors to support Dr Shapiro’s research here in Edmonton.”

Shapiro’s research continues to break ground

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, due to loss of insulin-producing islet cells. A biological cure will restore natural insulin production and normalize blood sugar levels for people living with the disease.

Shapiro has led his team in the Edmonton Protocol, an islet cell transplant treatment now used around the world. It involves transplanting islet cells from a healthy donor into a diabetic patient. Anti-rejection drugs help the body accept the transplant.

Today, over two hundred individuals have received a total of more than 700 infusions of islets at the U of A hospital.

Meanwhile, Shapiro’s work shifted focus to stem cells in 2019. Under this process, a diabetic's blood cells are re-programmed into insulin-producing cells. These are then transplanted back into the patient, freeing them from finger-prick testing and eliminating long-term complications of the disease.

“I’ve been doing islet transplants for 37 years. It’s allowed many patients freedom from insulin shots,” said Shapiro. “(However) with that experience, I recognized that if this is to be more mainstream, we need an unlimited supply of islet cells.”

While the transformation of a patient’s own cells into insulin-producing cells is still too complex for widespread use, if successful it will mark a new era in the cure for diabetes. The technique – itself based on a protocol by 2012 Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka at the University of Kyoto – will bypass the need for anti-rejection drugs and possibly keep patients from needing lifelong insulin injections.

In a recent human trial of stem cell transplantation, Shapiro’s team showed insulin-producing cells grown from stem cells can be safely implanted in diabetes patients.

Shapiro is also collaborating with the U of A’s department of computing science to use artificial intelligence (AI) software to dramatically speed up assessing the viability of new cells. There's hope for a working AI-based system within the next four years.

“We’re excited about some of the advances, it’s more of a discovery science at this point,” said Shapiro, noting donations to his team’s work is “very important. This is expensive research; the partnership is a major funding source."

Melanie Hibbard has already seen the impact.

“In the U.S, immediately after the partnership was announced there were two major donors for Dr Shapiro’s research,” said Hibbard. “He is on the leading edge. If you’re in the diabetes community, you know of Dr Shapiro.”