A Mayo Clinic doctor is on a quest to cure diabetes within his lifetime after three of children were diagnosed with the type 1 form of the condition.
Dr Quinn Peterson, director of the Islet Engineering and Replacement Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, was pursuing a career developing chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients when his then three-year-old daughter, Clarissa, was diagnosed with diabetes in 2010.
‘That was a very significant event in our family’s life,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘I felt a responsibility as a father that if I could contribute in any way to being able to relieve the suffering of this disease, not only for my daughter, but for all of those who are suffering with this disease, that I had the responsibility to do that.’
Since Clarissa, who is now 17, was diagnosed, two of Dr Peterson’s younger children – daughter Sarah, 12, and son Seth, 8 – have also been diagnosed.
Dr Quinn Peterson (far left) shifted his focus to diabetes research after his oldest daughter, Clarissa (middle) was diagnosed with the condition. He now leads a team at the Mayo Clinic working on treatments to eventually cure the disease
The above graph shows estimates for global diabetes cases. It is predicted that the number of people with the condition will more than double by the year 2050 compared to 2021
Dr Peterson’s team is now developing a cell-based therapy that could replace the need for supplementary insulin – and it is already in trials.
Eventually, he hopes treatments like this could cure diabetes altogether, which is surging across the globe.
‘It’s been a very rewarding experience for me to be able to work on something that I have such a personal passion for. But that passion has only gotten stronger subsequently since my children were diagnosed.’
Dr Peterson noted that he’s seen the challenges his children face while living with type 1 diabetes.
As well as having to inject insulin every day, his children are also forced to feel like outsiders – such as missing out on birthday cake at parties and sitting out during sports.
The family also worries about complications the kids face, as the condition raises their risk of heart disease from narrowed blood vessels and kidney and eye issues.
These issues mean people with type 1 diabetes tend to die younger – with recent estimates suggesting the drop in life expectancy can vary from seven to 20 years.
Dr Peterson’s team is working on a form of cell replacement therapy, which involves replacing diseased insulin-producing cells with healthy ones
‘My children are incredibly courageous. They handle this disease with a lot of bravery and a lot of confidence,’ Dr Peterson said about his children, three of whom are type 1 diabetic
Diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas can’t produce enough beta cells, which make insulin. Insulin regulates blood sugar, also known as glucose, which the body needs for energy.
When the body can’t make enough insulin, too much blood sugar stays in the bloodstream. This can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, nerve damage, and other lasting health issues.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 38 million children in the US have diabetes, and one in five are undiagnosed.
In type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune reaction causes the body to stop making insulin. This can be diagnosed at any age, and the CDC estimates that five to 10 percent of Americans have it.
Type 2 diabetes, meanwhile, develops over many years and is usually diagnosed in adults. This occurs when the body’s insulin can’t keep blood sugar at normal levels. Obesity is a major risk factor for this form, which affects more than 90 percent of diabetics.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are on the rise, with cases predicted to rise to 1.3 billion in the next three decades.
Experts estimate that explosion in cases — more than double the 529million now — will be largely driven by the world’s ever-expanding waistline.
A study published last year in the Journal of the American Heart Association, for example, found that obesity is linked to 30 to 53 percent of new diabetes cases in the US per year.
The CDC estimates that four in 10 Americans are obese, and the rate is climbing. Between March 2020 and March 2021, for example, number rose by 3 percent.
Dietary factors could be at play, as the American diet is high in sugar and processed foods – known risks for the condition.
Dr Peterson and his team are working on cell replacement therapy for type 1 diabetics, which involves placing new, healthy cells into the body to replace diseased or damaged ones.
In this case, immature stem cells would be crafted into cells that function similarly to beta cells. They can also be made into cells that mimic the function of alpha cells, which produce a hormone called glycogen, which functions similarly to glucose and raise blood sugar.
These cells are normally found in a region of the pancreas called the islet.
‘These three cell types work together as a community. They communicate with each other. They signal to each other to work together to regulate blood glucose levels,’ Dr Peterson said.
‘This would be a cell product that we can transplant into these individuals, and that would then allow these individuals to produce their own insulin instead of having to have daily injections of insulin.’
‘The cells that we’re generating are like a living medicine that would be able to sense the amount of glucose in the environment and secret the appropriate amount of insulin for these patients.’
This would also replace the need to monitor blood glucose levels, which Dr Peterson does for his children several times a day, from the moment they wake up to when they go to bed.
While the team is primarily evaluating the treatment in patients with type 1 diabetes, Dr Peterson said there could be potential benefit in those with type 2 diabetes as well.
Patients could expect to receive this via a minor surgery in which the cells would be implanted just underneath the skin’s surface.
Dr Peterson estimates that the cells can survive for about five years.
‘For individuals who have this disease, we’re optimistic that as we continue to move towards clinical trials, that we’ll be able to see significant improvements in the standard of care for patients,’ he said.
However, he cautions that cell therapy could still take several years before it enters human clinical trials, and even longer before it’s standard treatment.
Still, he remains optimistic about the potential.
‘This gives me a lot of hope. I see on a day-to-day basis, the struggle that it is to live with this disease,’ Dr Peterson said.
‘My children are incredibly courageous. They handle this disease with a lot of bravery and a lot of confidence.
‘But there are quiet moments where they share with me and with my wife, the struggles that they face with this disease, the difficulty that it is for them on an emotional level, on a personal level, on a physical level.’
‘For me, the idea of developing a cell replacement therapy provides a lot of hope for not only for my children, but for all patients who struggle with this, that their that suffering can be alleviated.’
‘They can have hope for a future where type 1 diabetes is not the challenge that it is today, and that they can live a normal life without the stress that comes with this disease.’