Family’s desperate bet on a diabetes cure

Posted: November 10, 2014 at 2:41 pm

The day Olivia Cox was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 16, her mother vowed to find a cure.

"I said to her, "there's someone walking this Earth who has been cured of diabetes, and I'm going to find him," Ruth Cox said.

Cox's search started with a call to Harvard University and ended with a family trip to Lima, Peru. It was at a clinic there that now 18-year-old Olivia and her father, Jeff, 54, who also has diabetes, received an infusion of stem cells designed to wipe out diabetes in their bodies or, at the very least, lessen its impact. The treatment illegal in the United States cost $70,000 for both father and daughter. Two months later, the Niskayuna family is waiting for a transformation and wondering if, in their desperation for a cure, they were snookered by false promises.

Because stem cells can be programmed to become anything from heart muscle to toenails, stem cell therapy can hypothetically be used to treat anything, from baldness to Lou Gehrig's Disease. But the study of regenerative medicine is still nascent in the United States, where it is restricted to procedures that use the patient's own cells, and it has been primarily used in treating cancer a procedure that saved Ruth Cox 13 years ago, when she had breast cancer.

Stem cell treatment using donor cells is more common elsewhere in the world, but with varying results and none that could be described as a cure. An executive order from President Barack Obama opened up funding for stem cell research and there are now more than 4,000 clinical trials under way, some on animals and some recruiting people with various ailments.

The American Diabetes Association strongly supports stem cell research, according to a statement posted on its website, which reads in part:

"Scientists from across the United States and throughout the world, including those involved with the American Diabetes Association believe that stem cell research, especially embryonic stem cell research, holds great promise in the search for a cure and better treatments for diabetes."

Jeff Cox, diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 11, has suffered none of the complications that often come with the disease neuropathy, loss of vision and heart disease. But Cox said living with diabetes is hell. He pricks his finger at least a dozen times a day to check his blood sugar level, because it is a more precise reading than the glucose monitor he wears. He also wears a pump that he programs to inject him with insulin automatically based on his diet and exercise each day. All the therapies used to treat diabetes are designed to intervene where the pancreas has gone awry.

In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn't produce insulin due to an autoimmune attack against the beta cell that produces insulin the hormone that converts glucose into energy our bodies need to survive. The Coxes didn't want their daughter to face a lifetime of managing her diabetes. They wanted a cure, and they were willing to take a risk to find it.

In order to treat diabetes with stem cell therapy, pancreatic stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood that are programmed to produce insulin, plus autologous mesenchymal stem cells from the patient's bone marrow, are injected. Once in the pancreas, the cells are supposed to replicate themselves, gradually replacing the non-insulin producing cells in the host's pancreas. The treatment is conducted in Peru, China, Russia and India and elsewhere, but Zubin Master, a bioethicist at Albany Medical College, said the risks of traveling abroad for stem cell therapy range from paying for an expensive treatment that doesn't work, to cancer and death.

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Family's desperate bet on a diabetes cure

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