Some years ago I was in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge in England when I noticed a display case with a cloth over it. Being a naturally curious person, downright nosy in fact, I lifted the cloth. In the display case was a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and in the margins were notes, corrections put there by Newton for the second edition.
It highlighted for me how the best scientists never stop working, never stop learning, never stop trying to improve what they do.
That came back to me when I saw a news release from ViaCyte, a company we are funding in a Phase 1 clinical trial to treat type 1 diabetes. The news release announced results of a study showing that insulin-producing cells, created in the lab from embryonic stem cells, can not only mature but also function properly after being implanted in a capsule-like device and placed under the skin of an animal model.
Now the clinical trial we are funding with ViaCyte uses a similar, but slightly different set of cells in people. The device in the trial contains what ViaCyte calls PEC-01™ pancreatic progenitor cells. These are essentially an earlier stage of the mature pancreatic cells that our body uses to produce insulin. The hope is that when implanted in the body, the cells will mature and then behave like adult pancreatic cells, secreting insulin and other hormones to keep blood glucose levels stable and healthy.
Those cells and that device are being tested in people with type 1 diabetes right now.
But in this study ViaCyte wanted to know if beta cells, a more mature version of the cells they are using in our trial, would also work or have any advantages over their current approach.
The good news, published in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine, is that these cells did work. As they say in their news release:
“The animal study also demonstrated for the first time that when encapsulated in a device and implanted into mice, these more mature cells are capable of producing functional pancreatic beta cells. ViaCyte is also the first to show that these further differentiated cells can function in vivo following cryopreservation, a valuable process step when contemplating clinical and commercial application.”
This does not mean ViaCyte wants to change the cells it uses in the clinical trial. As President and CEO Paul Laikind, PhD, makes clear:
“For a number of reasons we believe that the pancreatic progenitor cells that are the active component of the VC‐01 product candidate are better suited for cell replacement therapy. However, the current work has expanded our fundamental knowledge of beta cell maturation and could lead to further advances for the field.”
And that’s what I mean about the best scientists are the ones who keeping searching, keeping looking for answers. It may not help them today, but who knows how important that work will prove in the future.