For more than 24 million Americans, diabetes is a harsh part of everyday life. The disease is particularly prevalent among the Latino community, and Hispanic adults are almost twice as likely as white non-Hispanics to be diagnosed with diabetes.
Countless researchers have been working tirelessly for years trying to find a possible cure for the disease, which seems to be on the upswing. According to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 3 adults in the United States could be diagnosed with diabetes by the year 2050. An answer to many people's prayers, however, may be around the corner.
On March 5th, researchers under the leadership of Dr. Camillo Ricordi at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami announced a medical breakthrough, a biologically-engineered organ that would mimic the pancreas in creating the precise amount of insulin the body would need at any given moment, thereby controlling the patient's blood sugar levels. Called the "BioHub," it was described as "the closest medical science has gotten to a cure" for Type 1 diabetes, the variety also known as juvenile diabetes because most patients develop it either during their childhood or teen years.
In the mid-1980s, Ricordi invented a device that was capable of extracting islets, or the cells that produce insulin, from a donated, healthy pancreas. The cells could then be transplanted into the patient's liver. The body's immune system, however, would eventually kill the foreign cells. The only workaround was for the patient to take anti-rejection drugs, causing several side effects and potentially dangerous health issues for the patient.
The solution Ricordi and his team devised was a mini organ, implanted under the skin, in which the islets are sheltered from the body and still capable of thriving and reproducing.
The actual implant procedure requires minimal surgery, and patients should be able to go home the same day. And if for some reason, the BioHub encounters a problem or doesn't work, it can be easily replaced.
"The beauty of this is, if a patient rejects this, its such a small thing that they will just have a little scar," Ricordi said in an interview with Univision News' "Aqui y Ahora" show. "It's not dramatic like in the case of an organ transplant rejection."
Before diabetes patients can start signing up for the surgery, however, they have to wait for the FDA to give the device its approval, a process that Ricordi explains could take five to seven years. Currently researchers at the DRI are about to start phase one of the clinical trials, and only those patients with a severe case of Type 1 diabetes will be elegible.
Ricordi is reluctant to say he's come up with a cure for Type 1 diabetes, but he is optimistic. His dream is to one day do the same for patients with Type 2 diabetes, the version attributed to poor diet, obesity and hereditary predisposition that usually has its onset later in life.