The results of a 14-month study by a Canadian research team may transform conventional methods of treating diabetes by allowing some diabetics to abandon insulin injections. The announcement last week in Switzerland by Dr. Calvin Stiller, a kidney specialist at University Hospital in London, Ont., raised the prospect of improved treatment for the estimated 200,000 Canadians who are classed as type 1—or insulin dependent—diabetics. It also sparked interest in the international medical community and represents the latest development in a burst of new Canadian diabetes research. Said Dr. Stuart Ross, a diabetologist at the University of Calgary: “There is a very high level of exciting work that is going on in this country.” The Canadian research team treated recently diagnosed type 1 diabetics with the drug cyclosporine, which has more commonly been used in transplant surgery to inhibit the body’s rejection mechanisms. Fifty-eight per cent of the 41 diabetics whom the London team treated with the drug have been able to abandon daily injections of insulin. However, some researchers caution that the drug’s potential side effects, which can range from hair growth to liver and kidney damage, may limit its usefulness. The results of the cyclosporine study are only the latest addition to the body of diabetes research currently under way in Canada. The disease still remains the third-largest killer in North America, and a diabetic on insulin still often suffers complications ranging from blindness to heart failure.
Michael Albisser, a bioengineer at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto working with diabetic specialists, has devised a machine that duplicates the human pancreas. Last September, Albisser announced the beginning of test trials using a three-inch by five-inch portable microcomputer that, along with a glucose-monitoring device, allows a diabetic to control his blood glucose fluctuations more accurately.
Meanwhile, researchers at Connaught Laboratories in Toronto have announced both the development of synthetic insulin—now being used in trial tests on animals—and a method of implanting normal animal pancreatic islet cells—those parts of the organ that manufacture insulin—into diabetic animals. When researchers tried such experiments in the past, antibodies destroyed the foreign cells. But Connaught has developed a plastic polymer coating that protects the cells.
The cause of diabetes remains a mystery, but there is a growing atmosphere of optimism among the researchers. Said Dr. Bernard Leibel, a diabetologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children: “It is wrong to offer false hope. But it is also fair to say that at this point the future for the diabetic looks brighter than ever before.”
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