It has just been announced that the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) has been given $3 million to study a possible therapy for the COVID-19 virus.
What does a diabetes institute have to do with virus research? The short answer is that it has done pioneering research on umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells (UC-MSC). Because the DRI has a long track record in investigating the use of stem cells in treating type 1 diabetes, it’s well positioned to study whether these cells might also prove to be of value in treating inflammation related to COVID-19.
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The money was donated by North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU), an alliance of 14 national and international unions in the building and construction industry in the United States and Canada. For over 30 years NABTU has supported the work of the DRI, and in 1984 the two organizations launched the Blueprint for Cure, an initiative that resulted in the construction of the DRI facility in Miami, one of the world’s leading diabetes research centers. Since then, NABTU has donated nearly $60 million to help the DRI find a biological cure for diabetes by, as the research facility describes it, “restoring natural insulin production and normalizing blood sugar levels without imposing other risks.” Perhaps the DRI’s most notable effort has been the design of what it calls the DRI BioHub, a specially engineered “mini organ” that “mimics the native pancreas, containing real insulin-producing cells and other vital components that keep the cells healthy and able to function long term.”
When a baby is born, the umbilical cord and placenta are normally discarded, but the blood in them contains what are known as hematopoietic stem cells. These cells can be used to make other types of blood cells — white cells, red cells and platelets — and they’ve been employed for some time in bone marrow transplants. Because stem cells are thought to have great potential in treating many diseases, can replace damaged or nonfunctioning cells, and also can be used to treat inflammation, they’ve been called “the next frontier in medicine.”
The new COVID-related research is being led by DRI Director Camillo Ricordi, MD, in collaboration with an international team of investigators. According to Dr. Ricordi, “Traditionally we did this trial for type 1 diabetes or for kidney disease. But in this case, when you inject the cells intravenously the first filter is the lungs… that is the organ we want to treat.” The DRI research on a possible COVID-19 therapy builds on a 10-patient study originally done in China. Although Dr. Ricordi called that work “incredibly encouraging,” he added that the Chinese trial, as well as some trials done in other countries, was uncontrolled. The DRI initiative, he says, is a “real scientific validation trial.”
Dr. Ricordi expects that it will take not years, but only two to three months to determine “if it is a success or not.” But if it succeeds, he says, “It will be a way to treat the severe cases of COVID-19 while we wait for a vaccine. But also to have a repository of cells that will be able to treat any other possible pandemic or epidemic where the lung will be a target of the viral attack. In this case, you have an army of cells that are ready to be used and fight this viral infection and all the consequences that can induce in the lungs.” One umbilical cord, he points out, can provide as many as 10,000 to 15,000 doses of treatment.
Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read “Coronavirus and Diabetes: What You Need to Know,” “Healthy Eating During Hard Times” and “Avoiding Coronavirus With Diabetes: Stock Up and Stay Home, CDC Says.”