Dr. Camilo Ricordi is not resting on his laurels. He marked a milestone in 1986 when he created the Ricordi Chamber, which successfully isolates the pancreas’ special cells that produce insulin. The device is still used worldwide.
Instead, Ricordi is pursuing other research that could bridge the path to a real, lifetime cure to diabetes. No gadgets, no insulin injections, no further health complications.
As the director of the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami, Ricordi and some 140 other doctors, scientists and professionals take a collaborative approach to a singular goal to cure diabetes. The chronic disease affects 24 million people in the United States and is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, cardiovascular issues and amputations of lower limbs. As many as one in three U.S. adults could have diabetes by 2050, if current trends continue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ricordi has had success with the latest research that transplants those clusters of special cells, called islets, in patients with severe Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease while Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity, poor diet, an inactive lifestyle and more hereditary factors. Instead of transplanting a whole organ, researchers insert the islets in the pancreas.
Patients with the transplants have not suffered worsening retina problems and with new strategies like anti-inflammatory drugs, 50 percent stay off insulin for five years, a rate comparable to those who have had a pancreas transplant, Ricordi said.
Ricordi said one clinical trial is poised to pursue approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year for islet transplantations to move beyond research and into more regular practice.
“He is one of the world leaders in islet transplantation,” said Dr. Thomas Eggerman, director of the clinical islet transplantation program at the National Institutes of Health’s division of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolic diseases. Eggerman has collaborated with Ricordi on projects, including an international consortium in islet transplantation.
But there are still hurdles to the ultimate goal.
One challenge is that few people can benefit from the islet transplantations. Still considered research, the transplants are hampered by other issues. Donor cells are scarce and those with transplants need long-term anti-rejection drugs so their immune systems don’t attack the foreign cells.
“The hope is that with this experience, we can find another treatment -- we can gain the experience to apply to other cells that produce insulin,” Eggerman said.
Ricordi and other researchers are excited about other parallel research:
• A new trial in conducting transplants that could eliminate the need of anti-rejection drugs by using the donor’s bone marrow cells to replace the recipient’s immune system.
• New materials to encapsulate and protect the islet transplants from the body’s immune system.
• New ways to deliver the anti-rejection drugs just to the cells that need it, instead of the entire body.
• Using cells from alternative sources, like targeting progenitor cells from a patient’s own pancreas, to regenerate as those special insulin-producing cells. That would eliminate the need for transplants and anti-rejection drugs.