Researchers in Amman, Jordan are being recognized for cutting edge work that could cure diabetes by transplanting a patient’s own stem cells into the pancreas and modulating the immune system to keep insulin-producing cells alive.
The double edge approach uses specific populations of stem cells that are taken from the patient’s own blood. Those cells are prepared using special procedures involving magnetic purification especially developed for diabetic patients. Once prepared the cells are implanted into the pancreas, where they then produce insulin. A further component of the procedure is that the patient’s disease-fighting T cells are modulated with the goal of stopping an immune attack on insulin-producing beta cells.
“We have developed a special protocol to purify groups of specific types of stem cells taken from the patient’s own blood, and transplant them into the pancreas to allow for their differentiation into beta cells that produce insulin, in parallel with halting the immune attack on the beta cells of the pancreas,” says Dr. Adeeb Al-Zoubi, a Ph.D. graduate from the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and CEO of a private company called Stem Cells of Arabia, in Amman, Jordan. “This double edged approach provides a unique platform for a sustainable beta cell function and continuous insulin production in the pancreas because it regenerates functional beta cells, as well as provides a shield to protect the newly generated beta cells.”
Al-Zoubi has been studying the characteristics of stem cells and their potentials to differentiate into specific cell types that perform specific functions in the laboratory, for almost two decades, starting at UIC. Speaking from his office in Amman at 4 a.m. Al-Zoubi jokes that they are literally working “day and night” to continue the work that was recognized in September by the Alliance for the Advancement for Cellular Therapies, or AACT.
The application for such technology potentially offers a treatment, or even a cure for type 1 diabetes, if the study is properly supported, Al-Zoubi says. And, unlike islet cell transplantation, whereby insulin-producing beta cells from a cadaver pancreas are transplanted into a person’s liver to produce insulin, the technique developed by Al-Zoubi and his colleagues is minimally invasive.
The procedure, which was developed at Stem Cells of Arabia, and in collaboration with the University of Illinois, Al-Khaldi Medical Center, and The Royal Medical Services of Jordan, involves using a catheter to implant the purified stem cells into micro-capillaries in the region of the pancreas richest, or most active, in insulin production. The implantation does not require general anesthesia or surgery.
“It’s a simple procedure that has two advantages,” Al-Zoubi says. “We get local insulin production, and stop the assault on beta cells.”
To date, Al-Zoubi and his colleagues have tested the procedure on sixteen subjects; four of them as part of a phase one study that concluded in May, 2015. What they discovered was that it took anywhere from three to nine months for the procedure to work and start producing local insulin.
“It is a gradual process,’ Al-Zoubi explains. “If you want to fill a cup of water and you add a drop a day, it will take more than six months to fill the cup. But, it will happen.”
The work to reach this point started for Al-Zoubi when he was working to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago 18 years ago, under the supervision of a prominent autoimmunity scientist, Professor Bellur Prabhakar. They were studying the targets of the immune attack on beta cells, and how exactly a person’s immune system attacks beta cells in the pancreas causing type 1 diabetes.
“We realized at that time that if we could block the attack on beta cells, we could prevent the development of type 1 diabetes,” Al-Zoubi says. “What was needed, we realized, was a way to re-educate the immune cells so they wouldn’t attack the beta cells.”
That line of logic is defined as “immunomodulation” of the patient’s T lymphocytes, the spearhead of the immune attack on the beta cells; or quite literally “disarm” the attacking cells, thereby saving the beta cells. Further research by Dr. Yong Zhao, Professor Mark Holterman, and others revealed the ability for specific type of stem cells, derived from cord blood, to effectively and specifically “disarm” the self-destructive property of the patient’s own T lymphocytes that attack the beta cells of the pancreas.
It was the process of purifying viable, functional, and effective combinations of autologous stem cells derived from a patient’s own blood, and capable of regenerating beta cells, that proved to be the significant breakthrough accomplished at Al-Zoubi’s private company, Stem Cells of Arabia.
The company, which has five laboratories, 21 employees at its central facility, and more than 50 other employees scattered at satellite medical facilities and hospitals, began 10 years ago looking at the possible causes of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
“Our main concern was pediatric immune deficiencies,” Al-Zoubi says. “From there we got more and more involved in many other areas; and studying the immune system provided many effective solutions to devastating chronic human conditions that were once announced as untreatable.”
The most tantalizing breakthrough for Al-Zoubi is still being developed through additional testing and clinical trials for the purification and implantation procedures developed at Stem Cells of Arabia.
“We just began phase two clinical trial for diabetes a few weeks ago, and it will last three to five years,” Al-Zoubi says. “I am looking forward to the exciting things coming up as a result of all this work.”