May 07, 2014

Rotary Clubs boost diabetes research

Cutting edge research to cure diabetes got a $10,000 shot in the arm last week from Rotary Clubs throughout the district, with the possibility of more support to come.

About 300 people attended a dinner last week to hear from two world-renowned scientists about progress in defeating a disease that now directly affects more than 25% of Canadians.

Dr. Gary Lewis
“Stunning rates of obesity are driving the diabetes epidemic,” said Dr. Gary Lewis, Director of the Banting & Best Diabetes Centre at Toronto General Hospital. “Children are not active enough, and our lifestyle puts us at risk.”

The event in Caledon East was sponsored by a cluster of Rotary Clubs: Bolton, Erin, Orangeville, Orangeville Highlands, Palgrave and Shelburne.

Lewis was presented with three cheques: $5,000 from Scotiabank, $3,000 from RBC Dominion Securities and $2,000 from the local Rotarians.

Since 1985, Rotary International has contributed $1.2 billion (US) to help eradicate polio – a job that is almost complete.

“It is my belief that Rotarians will rally behind the efforts of the McEwen Centre and Banting & Best Institute in battling diabetes, just as Rotarians have contributed to the worldwide elimination of polio,” said Brian Gentles of Erin, Assistant Governor of the cluster.

Type 1 diabetes, the more severe form of the disease, occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys the “beta” cells that produce insulin within the pancreas. Insulin injections help diabetics control their blood sugar, but the goal is to restore the body’s ability to produce its own insulin.

Type 2 diabetes, in which insulin is deficient, represents 90% of cases. It can often be controlled with diet and exercise, but insulin injections are needed in serious cases. 
Diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, impotence, depression and nerve damage, including amputations.

Lewis said while there are strong genetic factors behind diabetes, it is also “a disease of the poor”, since low income is linked to a higher risk of poor nutrition and less physical activity. 
While 3 million Canadians are known to have diabetes, another million may not know they have it, he said, and millions more have a high-glucose condition called pre-diabetes.

Dr. Maria Cristina Nostro
He introduced Dr. Maria Cristina Nostro, Principal Investigator with the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine, describing her as a “world expert in stem cell research”.

She works with embryonic stem cells, which are “pluripotent” – able to develop into any type of self-replicating cell, including an insulin-producing beta cell.  She described her excitement in 2011 of training cells to make this transformation, injecting them into special mice without an immune system and seeing those human cells develop, delivering insulin to the blood to control sugar levels.

“We are now testing to see if we can cure a diabetic mouse,” she said. “We have very recent data suggesting we can normalize the sugar concentration. The data is extremely encouraging and we are just super-excited.”

Their goal is to understand what it takes to produce a supply of insulin-producing cells outside of a mouse. This would enable experimentation on transplant methods and drug therapy to ensure their survival and full function, leading to human trials.

“If we have enough of these cells, and if one day we can find a better immuno-suppressant regimen, we could actually cure Type 1 diabetes,” she said. “If we can find a drug that can improve the growth of the beta cells in vitro, maybe we can also help cure, or at least treat, Type 2 diabetes.”