Worldwide approximately 220 million individuals are affected by diabetes - the fastest growing chronic disease in the world. In Australia it is estimated that 1.7 million individuals (diagnosed and undiagnosed) die from diabetes, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the country, killing 1 in 13 of the population.
The disease which is also known as juvenile diabetes affects 10% of all sufferers, and per person the cost of treatment over a lifetime is approximately $1 million.
Professor Bob Elliott, who has spent over 5 decades investigating the disease, explained:
"In Australia the incidence of Type 1 diabetes has doubled over the last 20 years. This is a very worrying and perplexing trend. Australia is now where Finland was 15 years ago."
The worst prevalence of Type 1 diabetes is in Finland, where 50 individuals per 100,000 under the age of 15 years are affected with the disease.
The majority of individuals who suffer with the disease need to inject themselves multiple times a day in order to maintain the right balance of blood glucose levels. However, 1 in 5 sufferers develop a complication of diabetes called unaware hypoglycemia. This complication fails to trigger the secretion of epinephrine which generates the characteristic symptoms of hypoglycemia that warn a patient when blood sugar levels have dropped. This can be extremely dangerous for the patient if for example, they are driving a car. Hypoglycemia unawareness is accountable for up to 8% of deaths as well as several complications related to the disease.
For some diabetes patients there is the possibility of having a procedure called islet transplantation, in which islets are taken from the pancreas of a deceased organ donor and transplanted into the patient in order to get their pancreas to secrete more insulin, however, the risk of rejection is high. This procedure also requires immuno-suppressant medications which cost around $250,000 per treatment, and can have unpleasant and dangerous adverse effects.
Prof. Elliott said:
"These procedures that are inherently difficult and there are question marks about their long-term effectiveness and cost/benefit."
Instead, Professor Elliott is supporting a break through novel cell implant treatment called DIABECELL® . The new implant therapy aims to reduce the need for regular injections and constant monitoring of blood glucose levels by helping to restore the regulation of insulin to near-normal levels.
The company, Living Cell Technology has developed a way of implanting pancreatic islet cells from pigs through a simple keyhole surgery in order to generate a self-regulating source of insulin in the patient's body. The pigs used for islet cells are not like other pigs that carry viruses and bacteria as they are biocertified pathogen-free. The heard was rescued from the remote Auckland islands and have effectively been in quarantine for the last 200 years. The company was founded by Prof. Elliott where he is Medical Director.
Prof. Elliott says:
"What this means is that the procedure can be achieved without the use of immuno-suppressive drugs which is a world first."