PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Thirty million Americans are living with diabetes and hoping someday to be cured. That day could come sooner than expected, thanks to a team of researchers at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
They could possibly do what has never been done: cure all types of diabetes.
It’s history in the making at the Rangos Research Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Surgeon and Director of Research, Dr. George Gittes, and his team have discovered a way to reprogram cells in the pancreas.
“Normally, the pancreas makes insulin, and unfortunately, with diabetes there’s a problem with that. So the idea would be, rather than giving someone cells that make insulin, which might be rejected as a foreign thing, we induce or tweak the existing cells in a diabetic patient in the pancreas, tweak them into turning into insulin cells,” said Dr. Gittes.
They have engineered a safe virus that does gene therapy.
“We infuse the viruses into the pancreatic tissue. It permeates through the pancreas, but it finds the cells that are the ones that have the capability to turn into insulin cells and it makes that happen,” said Dr. Gittes.
They have pioneered a novel procedure — an infusion process using an endoscope that delivers the virus directly to the pancreas, so other cells in the body are not affected.
“In a human, we could go through the mouth, down the stomach, to where the pancreas opening is, infuse the virus back up into the pancreas,” said Dr. Gittes.
One infusion could mean long-term results that would allow a diabetic patient to regulate their own blood sugar, replacing the need for insulin injections.
“The idea that you could do a single injection and see a permanent change is very exciting,” said Dr. Gittes.
A clinical trial for gene therapy to treat diabetes has never been done. Dr. Gittes’ team appears to be closer than ever, already having success with both mice and monkeys.
“Once we get a consistent result with the monkeys, we will then go to the FDA and present them with the trial we want to do in diabetic patients,” said Dr. Gittes.
According to Dr. Gittes, they are pretty close to being ready for a clinical trial. This means closer, than perhaps ever before, to a cure and something that gives real hope to diabetic patients, like Krista Hoebel.
“To be reprieved of that, through a cure, it just, blows my mind – amazing,” said Hoebel.
Hoebel is a Type 1 diabetes patient. She’s constantly training for obstacle course races in her spare time. Her full-time job involves protecting and serving. Hoebel is a Pittsburgh Police Detective who investigates child abuse and sex assault cases. At work, the gym, or anywhere, managing her Type 1 diabetes is her other full-time job. She credits her illness for teaching her discipline and resiliency.
“I think with all people with diabetes, there’s a certain degree of resiliency through just the management portion of it, and I wonder what kind of athlete I would have been without diabetes? I mean, I had to grow up quickly. I had a chronic illness at the age of 10. That’s a lot for a kid,” said Hoebel.
Her positive attitude helps her through the days that are especially exhausting.
“Sometimes, I find myself saying like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need a break.’ But in reality, there is no break,” said Hoebel.
For now that is true, but if Dr. Gittes’ research translates into people, Hoebel may get that break.
“It would be groundbreaking. Hopefully, I would get to reap the benefits of that at some point. That would be amazing,” said Hoebel.
“I think I get more excited about it when I tell people about it and see their excitement,” said Dr. Gittes.
Pittsburgh could be the place.
“I would love to do the clinical trial,” said Hoebel.
Dr. Gittes could be the doctor who creates the cure.
“That would be exciting. It’s possible, I certainly hope that rings true,” said Gittes.
The intervention Dr. Gittes and his team have created is the only thing so far that has shown to cure diabetes without suppressing a patient’s immune system. If you would like to donate to help the team’s research, please visit: https://www.givetochildrens.org/.