After 40 plus years of living with diabetes, Brent Smithson is at a loss for words when he considers what life without it may be like.

“I feel like I’m there now,” he says, “It’s weird.”

Diagnosed with diabetes in 1978, Smithson was on insulin for the following 44 years. Without functioning islet cells, he had to test his own sugar levels up to six times a day. By 2017, the indicators that his sugar levels were dropping went from shivers, shakes and cold sweats to middle-of-the-night seizures. “They were pretty terrifying. My wife wasn’t sleeping well in
those days.”

The seizures led him to the lab of Dr. James Shapiro, a transplant surgeon at the University of Alberta Hospital (UAH) and lead researcher on a revolutionary project that has the potential to end diabetes.

No stranger to transformational research discoveries, Shapiro’s work in 2000 as the director of the Clinical Islet Transplant Program at the University of Alberta led to a procedure known worldwide as “The Edmonton Protocol” for transplanting insulin-producing islet cells.

As successful as the Edmonton Protocol has been in reducing the need for daily insulin injections, it left recipients with a lifelong dependency on anti-rejection drugs and, due to a shortage of available islet cells for transplantation, could only help a limited number of people.

Shapiro’s current research involves extracting and converting a patient’s own blood cells into islet cells which he then transplants back into the patient, the idea being that the patient’s body will begin producing insulin on its own, effectively curing diabetes.

“The idea that you could generate patients’ own cells and not need anti-rejection drugs, and that you could apply it for all forms of diabetes, not specifically type one but type two as well, and maybe in children and other unusual forms of diabetes makes this, I think, particularly attractive,” says Shapiro.

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