Study at University of Wisconsin Uses a Stem Cell Treatment for Type 1 Diabetes

Study aims to learn whether treating newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetics with adult stem cells can either slow or stop the progression of their disease, thereby reducing or even eliminating insulin dependence.

Study of diabetes treatment under way at UW, elsewhere
A study at UW Hospital and others across the country is testing an experimental treatment for Type 1 diabetes: giving adult stem cells to people recently diagnosed in hopes of stopping the progression of the disease.

The approach involves stem cells taken from the bone marrow of donors and grown in a lab. The cells, infused into patients intravenously, are thought to reduce the inflammation that causes the patients to stop producing insulin, researchers say.

Insulin, a hormone, is needed to process sugar. People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin shots or use insulin pumps to stave off kidney disease, blindness, amputations, heart disease and other serious conditions. The hope is that the new treatment could reduce or eliminate their need for insulin, though that remains unproven.

John Markwardt, a UW-Madison student, became the first person in Wisconsin to enroll in the national study Thursday, when he received an infusion at UW Hospital. A third of participants receive a placebo, and Markwardt doesn’t know if he got a fake treatment or a real one. But the 20-year-old from Wausau is hopeful the procedure will help. “I could become totally independent or less dependent on insulin,” he said.

Markwardt learned he had diabetes in March, after his vision become blurry and he had to urinate frequently. Driving home with friends from a spring break trip to Florida, he had to make an unusual number of bathroom stops.

The day he got home, Markwardt used the blood glucose meter of his 14-year-old brother, who has Type 1 diabetes. He found his level to be six times higher than normal. A doctor soon diagnosed him, and he started on insulin.

UW Hospital is one of 20 medical centers involved in the study, said Dr. Peiman Hematti, a hematologist. At least two other patients are expected to be enrolled in Madison and about 60 patients nationally, Hematti said.

The cells are processed by Osiris, a biotech company in Columbus, Md. They arrive frozen in bags and are thawed before given through an IV.

Called mesenchymal stem cells, they are one of two kinds of adult stem cells found in bone marrow. Unlike most kinds of immune-system cells, the cells don’t appear to trigger rejection when transplanted into other people, Hematti said.

That means patients receiving the cells don’t have to take drugs to suppress their immune systems. The drugs, required for life for recipients of most cell and organ transplants, are expensive and have side effects, including a higher risk for infectious diseases.

UW Hospital has enrolled patients with a bone-marrow transplant complication known as graft versus host disease in a similar trial of mesenchymal stem cells from Osiris. Heart attack patients at the hospital likely will be enrolled in such a study soon, Hematti said.

The diabetes study does not apply to people with Type 2 diabetes, who account for most of the 23 million Americans with diabetes. Their bodies produce insulin but can’t use it properly, often because of inactivity or obesity.