McMaster prof working on cure for Type 1 diabetes


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Q and A: Dr. Harald Stover and Allarta co-founder Maria Antonakos talk about new cell-based therapy, which alleviates need for insulin injections and immune-suppressive drugs.

There’s no cure for Type 1 diabetes.

But soon, courtesy of a Hamilton-based company, there could be one.

Dr. Harald Stover, a chemistry professor at McMaster University and co-founder of Allarta Life Sciences, is behind breakthrough research that aims to cure diabetes with a cell-based therapy, in which new curative cells transplanted into the body do the work to produce insulin — alleviating the need for injections and immune-suppressive drugs.

The technology, born in a McMaster laboratory, is in the early stages of implementation in Canada — 100 years after Canadian researchers developed therapeutic insulin, changing the lives of diabetics around the world.

Stover, who presented his latest developments at the World Polymer Congress in Winnipeg July 20, told The Spectator his team is working “to push the technology closer to the clinic and patients in Canada and globally.”

We spoke to Stover and Allarta co-founder Maria Antonakos about their work. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What led you to search for a cure for Type 1 diabetes?

Dr. Harald Stover: We realized in my academic work of 25 years that large molecules (polymer science) had applications in biomedicine. In the preliminary work, we encapsulated cells in the synthetic hydrogel, and saw proof of concept that it had specific benefits in terms of transplanting cells and keeping these transplanted cells alive. We decided to bring this technology to the clinic faster than you can often do at a university, and started a company in 2019.

Diabetes is a global epidemic that is increasing rapidly. It costs 10 per cent of the annual health budget of many countries, and Type 1 diabetes is in the most serious need of treatment.

Immune suppression can cost upwards of $20,000 per year throughout the life of a patient. The effects on the health of not having to take immune suppression are harder to calculate but it’s very substantial. Currently, only the sickest diabetics qualify for islet or pancreas transplantation because of the cost and the risk of immune suppression. With the new technology, patients with Type 1 diabetes would be eligible to receive a transplant.

How will your technology transform the treatment for Type 1 diabetes?

HS: Canada is known to have discovered insulin — the hormone that regulates blood sugar. In a healthy person, the islets in the pancreas can control blood sugar within a very narrow path. Diabetic patients lose the ability to control their blood sugar and injected insulin is the current treatment of choice, but it doesn’t prevent long-term health issues for diabetics.

A curative approach would be either a pancreas transplant or a transplant of the islets of Langerhans — cells in the pancreas that control the blood sugar. But transplants require lifelong immune suppression because these are not your own cells, your body would reject them. This requires taking immune-suppression drugs.

Our technology would encapsulate the islets in a gel that allows cells to be transplanted and prevents them from being seen by the immune system. It’s like a diver’s shark cage that keeps the sharks away from the diver.

When will the treatment be available to the public?

Maria Antonakos: We hope to be in clinical trials in 2024, and we’re putting all of our efforts and resources toward that.

HS: Clinical trials would enrol patients with Type 1 diabetes who have difficulties controlling their blood sugar, even with the best current standard of care. The islet transplantation would not require any immune suppression, and is important because systemic lifelong immune suppression is risky. It increases the rate of serious infections and cancer. The transplant surgeons that we’ve talked to, both in Canada and the U.S., have validated that it is something they have been looking for.

What other research is underway at Allarta?

MA: The technology is a platform technology, which means you could use it for any number of diseases. You can deliver therapeutic cells to the patient for a particular function, and that’s a potential therapeutic approach.

HS: In future, we expect to be able to use stem cell-derived islets to treat a much larger number of patients in addition to Type 1 diabetes.

Ultimately, there could be many different cell payloads that could go into our hydrogels. Transplanting cells that produce an enzyme or hormone that’s missing in a patient is going to become a significant part of future health care. This could treat hemophilia, Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s, and possibly other enzyme and hormone replacement therapies.