“In the weeks leading up to my diagnosis, I remember making and drinking Kool-Aid at the rate of about a gallon per day, and getting up to pee and drink Kool-Aid several times a night. The exhaustion and constant thirst and the weight loss were pretty scary. Insulin saved my life, and it’s been saving my life every day for the past 40 years.” – John Welsh
In honor of diabetes awareness month, we are featuring a patient perspective on what it’s like to live with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and what the future of stem cell research holds in terms of a cure.
T1D is a chronic disease that destroys the insulin producing cells in your pancreas, making it very difficult for your body to maintain the proper levels of sugar in your blood. There is no cure for T1D and patients take daily shots of insulin and closely monitor their blood sugar to stay healthy and alive.
Stem cell research offers an alternative strategy for treating T1D patients by potentially replacing their lost insulin producing cells. We’ve written blogs about ongoing stem cell research for diabetes on the Stem Cellar (here) but we haven’t focused on the patient side of T1D. So today, I’m introducing you to John Welsh, a man whose has lived with T1D since 1976.
John Welsh is a MD/PhD scientist and currently works at a company called Dexcom, which make a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device for diabetes patients. He is also an enrolled patient in CIRM-funded stem cell clinical trial (also funded by JDRF) for T1D sponsored by the company ViaCyte. The trial is testing a device containing stem cell-derived pancreatic cells that’s placed under the skin to act as a transplanted pancreas. You can learn more about it here.
I reached out to John to see if he wanted to share his story about living with diabetes. He was not only willing but enthusiastic to speak with me. As you will read later, one of John’s passions is a “good story”. And he sure told me a good one. So before you read on, I recommend grabbing some coffee or tea, going to a quiet room, and taking the time to enjoy his interview.
Q: Describe your career path and your current job.
JW: I went to college at UC Santa Cruz and majored in biochemistry and molecular biology. I then went into the medical scientist training program (combined MD/PhD program) at UC San Diego followed by research positions in cell biology and cancer biology at UC San Francisco and Novartis. I’ve been a medical writer specializing in medical devices for type 1 diabetes since 2009. At Dexcom, I help study the benefits of CGM and get the message out to healthcare professionals.
Q: How has diabetes affected your life and what obstacles do you deal with because of diabetes?
JW: I found out I had T1D at the age of 13, and it’s been a part of my life for 40 years. It’s been a big deal in terms of what I’m not allowed to do and figuring out what would be challenging if I tried. On the other hand, having diabetes is a great motivator on a lot of levels personally, educationally and professionally. Having this disease made me want to learn everything I could about the endocrine system. From there, my interests turned to biology – molecular biology in particular – and understanding how molecules in cells work.
The challenge of having diabetes also motivated me to do things that I might not have thought about otherwise – most importantly, a career that combined science and medicine. Having to stay close to my insulin and insulin-delivery paraphernalia (early on, syringes; nowadays, the pump and glucose monitor) meant that I couldn’t do as many ridiculous adventures as I might have otherwise.
Q: Did your diagnosis motivate you to pursue a scientific career?
JW: Absolutely. If I hadn’t gotten diabetes, I probably would have gone into something like engineering. But my parents were both healthcare professionals, so a career in medicine seemed plausible. The medical scientist MD/PhD training program at UC San Diego was really cool, but very competitive. Having first-hand experience with this disease may have given me an inside track with the admissions process, and that imperative – to understand the disease and how best to manage it – has been a great motivator.
There’s also a nice social aspect to being surrounded by people whose lives are affected by T1D.
Q: Describe your treatment regimen for T1D?
JW: I travel around with two things stuck on my belly, a Medtronic pump and a Dexcom Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) sensor. The first is an infusion port that can deliver insulin into my body. The port lasts for about three days after which you have to take it out. The port that lives under the skin surface is nine millimeters long and it’s about as thick as a mechanical pencil lead. The port is connected to a tube and the tube is connected to a pump, which has a reservoir with fast-acting insulin in it.
The insulin pump is pretty magical. It’s conceptually very simple, but it transforms the way a lot of people take insulin. You program it so that throughout the day, it squirts in a tiny bit of basal insulin at the low rate that you want. If you’re just cruising through your day, you get an infusion of insulin at a low basal rate. At mealtimes, you can give yourself an extra squirt of insulin like what happens with normal people’s pancreas. Or if you happen to notice that you have a high sugar level, you can program a correction bolus which will help to bring it back to towards the normal range. The sensor continuously interrogates the glucose concentration in under my skin. If something goes off the rails, it will beep at me.
As good as these devices are, they’re not a cure, they’re not perfect, and they’re not cheap, so one of my concerns as a physician and as a patient is making these transformative devices better and more widely available to people with the disease.
Q: What are the negative side effects associated with your insulin pump and sensor?
JW: If you have an insulin pump, you carry it everywhere because it’s stuck onto you. The pump is on you for three days and it does get itchy. It’s expensive and a bit uncomfortable. And when I take my shirt off, it’s obvious that I have certain devices stuck on me. This is a big disincentive for some of my type 1 friends, especially those who like to wear clothes without pockets. And every once-in-a-while, the pump will malfunction and you need a backup plan for getting insulin when it breaks.
On the other hand, the continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is wonderful especially for moms and dads whose kids have T1D. CGM lets parents essentially spy on their kids. You can be on the sidelines watching your kid play soccer and you get a push notification on your phone saying that the glucose concentration is low, or is heading in that direction. The best-case scenario is that this technology helps people avoid dangerous and potentially catastrophic low blood sugars.
Q: Was the decision easy or hard to enroll in the ViaCyte trial?
JW: It was easy! I was very excited to learn about the ViaCyte trial and equally pleased to sign up for it. When I found out about it from a friend, I wanted to sign up for it right away. I went to clinicaltrials.gov and contacted the study coordinator at UC San Diego. They did a screening interview over the phone, and then they brought me in for screening lab work. After I was selected to be in the trial, they implanted a couple of larger devices (about the size of a credit card) under the skin of my lower back, and smaller devices (about the size of a postage stamp) in my arm and lower back to serve as “sentinels” that were taken out after two or three months.
I’m patient number seven in the safety part of this trial. They put the cell replacement therapy device in me without any pre-medication or immunosuppression. They tested this device first in diabetic mice and found that the stem cells in the device differentiated into insulin producing cells, much like the ones that usually live in the mouse pancreas. They then translated this technology from animal models to human trials and are hoping for the same type of result.
I had the device transplanted in March of 2015, and the plan is for in the final explant procedure to take place next year at the two-year anniversary. Once they take the device out, they will look at the cells under the microscope to see if they are alive and whether they turned into pancreatic cells that secrete insulin.
It’s been no trouble at all having this implant. I do clinic visits regularly where they do a meal challenge and monitor my blood sugar. My experience being a subject in this clinical study has been terrific. I met some wonderful people and I feel like I’m helping the community and advancing the science.
Q: Do you think that stem cell-derived therapies will be a solution for curing diabetes?
JW: T1D is a great target for stem cell therapy – the premise makes a lot of sense — so it’s logical that it’s one of the first ones to enter clinical trials. I definitely think that stem cells could offer a cure for T1D. Even 30 years ago, scientists knew that we needed to generate insulin producing cells somehow, protect them from immunological rejection, and package them up and put them somewhere in the body to act like a normal pancreas. The concept is still a good concept but the devil is in the implementation. That’s why clinical trials like the one CIRM is funding are important to figure these details out and advance the science.
Q: What is your opinion about the importance of stem cell research and advancing stem cell therapies into clinical trials?
JW: Understanding how cells determine their fate is tremendously important. I think that there’s going to be plenty of payoffs for stem cell research in the near term and more so in the intermediate and long term. Stem cell research has my full support, and it’s fun to speculate on how it might address other unmet medical needs. The more we learn about stem cell biology the better.
Q: What advice do you have for other patients dealing with diabetes or who are recently diagnosed?
JW: Don’t give up, don’t be ashamed or discouraged, and gather as much data as you can. Make sure you know where the fast-acting carbohydrates are!
Q: What are you passionate about?
JW: I love a good story, and I’m a fan of biological puzzles. It’s great having a front-row seat in the world of diabetes research, and I want to stick around long enough to celebrate a cure.