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Engines helping engines: Rock'n August raises 'critical' diabetes research funding

As researchers are closer than ever to developing a cure for diabetes, one Rock'N August organizer says it's a "critical" time to raise money for the Alberta Diabetes Institute.
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Dr. James Shapiro is one of many diabetes researchers who work in the Alberta Diabetes Institute. Rock'N August has been fundraising for Shapiro directly, and indirectly, for the past 26 years. SUPPLIED/Photo

There are a myriad of reasons why people love classic cars.

For some, classic cars carry with them the feeling of childhood nostalgia with their colours, smell, style, and feel. For others, attending events like Rock'n August can be similar to visiting an art gallery, where no two paintings are exactly the same, and the masters are always on display.

For most, however, classic cars are a reminder there's value in restoration. Why replace something when you can repair what you have?

One of the world's preeminent researchers of diabetes, Dr. James Shapiro, employs a similar philosophy in his ongoing studies. Shapiro and his colleagues at the Alberta Diabetes Institute are trying to fine-tune processes of restoring multiple types of a diabetic person's cells to a more functional versions of those cells, with the intention of curing both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

Since the first event in 1996, Rock'n August has been raising money for Shapiro and other diabetes researchers at the institute, hoping to help fund the cure.

“This money we raise, it's critical that it gets to the researchers as quickly as possible, because we are really close," said Cheryl MacKenzie, a key volunteer organizer of Rock'n August. 

"We’re at the cure stage now, we’re not still trying to hunt it down."

Indeed, researchers trying to find a cure for diabetes have made major strides over the past 26 years, culminating in the institute's stem-cell research.

In 1999, Shapiro and four other researchers behind the University of Alberta's clinical islet transplant program successfully developed the Edmonton Protocol. An article on the U of A website describes this protocol as: "A process that allows successful transplantation of donated insulin-producing islet cells into the livers of people with Type 1 diabetes.

"Most are freed from the need for daily insulin injections, but they continue to need anti-rejection drugs, which can have negative side-effects such as an increased risk of cancer and kidney damage."

Shapiro has also been trying to find a way to remove the need for transplant receivers to take anti-rejection medication. 

To do so, Shapiro has been conducting two different clinical trials. The first involves a patient's T regulatory cells, "A component of the immune system that suppresses the immune responses of other cells," a U of A article states. "The [T cells] are removed, expanded outside the body and then infused back into the patient as part of the islet transplant."

The second clinical trial Shapiro is doing to reduce the need for anti-rejection medication "is exploring the possibility of resetting the immune system in patients newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes." 

"The idea is to switch off the immune attack on islets before most of the islet-producing cells are destroyed inside the pancreas."

As of 2020, the clinical islet transplant program treated 293 patients with the Edmonton Protocol, 40 per cent of whom didn't need regular insulin injections five years after receiving transplanted islet cells. 

Despite the success and efficacy of the Edmonton Protocol, researchers face one major barrier: a limited supply of functional islet cells.

The limited supply has lead to Dr. Greg Korbutt and Andrew Pepper's research also taking place at the institute. A 2020 article posted on the U of A's website said Korbutt and Pepper are conducting clinical trials on islet cells taken from neonatal pigs, with the goal of creating another source of islet cells for transplantation, rather than relying solely on human organ donors.

Taking a different route than Korbutt and Pepper, Shapiro has been working on re-configuring blood from diabetic patients in order to make islet cells. An article from the U of A said Shapiro's process is to use hormones and "other growth factors" on a patient's blood cells in order to create stem cells, and then, using hormones and growth factors again, Shapiro can turn those stem cells into functional islet cells.

In an email, Lindsay Burnham, the executive director of the Alberta Diabetes Foundation, said "Really, from my perspective, the only thing that’s getting in the way of finding a cure is funding.

"Events like Rock'n August provide critical funds to allow us to get that money out to researchers as fast as possible."

Being so close to a cure for diabetes is why MacKenzie and the team behind Rock'n August dedicate themselves to the event every year.

"That’s why we work so hard [and] that’s why I’ve been doing this for years," said MacKenzie, a Type 2 diabetic herself.

"This event is not easy ... it takes us all year, so we do it because we’re passionate about the cause.”

Rock'n August is on from Aug. 2 to 6.

About the Author: Jack Farrell

Jack Farrell joined the St. Albert Gazette in May, 2022.
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