Wednesday, September 10, 2014

California Bets $55 Million on 'Teabag' Diabetes Treatment

BERKELEY, Ca. -- California today beefed up its investment in a “teabag” therapy for diabetes, bringing the total to $55 million in an effort to develop a “virtual cure” for an affliction that affects 347 million people worldwide.

It is believed to be the largest direct investment that the state has ever made in a company. The therapy also involves the most controversial of stem cell treatments, ones derived from human embryonic stem cells(hESC). 

The impact of the potential therapy could be far-reaching.  About 70,000 persons die each year in this country from diabetes. It is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States.

Forty-three-year-old Maria Torres, who lives in the Sacramento area, is hoping for a positive outcome on the therapy.
Maria Torres
CIRM photo
 “I have three kids, and I know they could have the same thing I have. If they find a cure, for me, that’s peace of mind.”
Torres was featured in a blog post yesterday by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine(CIRM), the state’s nearly 10-year-old, $3 billion stem cell research program, which is providing the taxpayer funding.

Meeting here today, directors of the agency approved, on an 8-0-1 vote, $16.6 million in awards to Viacycte, Inc., of San Diego, Ca., to advance its work on the therapy.  Over the last six years, the agency has pumped $38.5 million into the company, which has received by far the greatest amount of cash from the agency of any business. A subsidiary of Johnson&Johnson as well recently invested $20 million in Viacyte.

The firm’s treatment is scheduled to begin clinical trials this year. UC San Diego has begun enrolling patients, Viacyte CEO Paul Laikind told CIRM directors this morning.

The therapy involves several, porous, teabag-like packages that are inserted beneath the skin. An individual device is about the length of a credit card but half the width. The firm plans to work on a larger device for single insertion. 

In the CIRM blog post yesterday, Anne Holden, Web content and social media manager for the agency, said the device contains cells that “sense blood sugar levels and produce insulin to reduce them.”  That “allows transfer of blood sugar, insulin, oxygen, and other molecules but keeps (other) cells out, thus avoiding the possible attack and rejection by the patient’s own immune system.”

Regular use of the treatment is years away because of the series of clinical trials that must be run. Additionally, only about one out 10 traditional drugs entering clinical trials reach the marketplace. No therapies involving human embryonic stem cells (hESC) have successfully run the clinical trial gauntlet in the U.S. and secured approval for widespread use.  

Viacyte’s therapy is derived from those controversial cells and is the first hESC trial backed by CIRM.   Some religious groups and others believe the use of the cells is tantamount to murder. Opposition to hESC research has subsided in recent years because of the focus on the possible use of reprogrammed adult stem cells. However, it flared up again in recent weeks because of a flap over the so-called Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised funds for ALS research, some of which involves hESC.

The California stem cell agency, ironically, owes its existence to the opposition to hESC research. Former President George Bush restricted federal funding for hESC research because of the religious concerns. The ballot campaign in 2004 to create the agency relied heavily on Bush’s action to demonstrate the need for continuing research into the promising field. 

Here is a link to the CIRM press release on the awards. 

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