Diabetes research taps cells of piglets

It's like something out of the X-Files: Cameras and a state-of-the-art security system protect a building that at first glance appears to be nothing more than a large storage shed placed on the outskirts of a small Western Wisconsin town.

It's like something out of the X-Files: Cameras and a state-of-the-art security system protect a building that at first glance appears to be nothing more than a large storage shed placed on the outskirts of a small Western Wisconsin town.

Only a select group of people are allowed deep inside the building -- and before that, they must remove their clothes and jewelry and take a long shower that includes using a specialized soap and mouthwash before getting into sterilized garments. Anyone wanting to get out must take another shower.

Their primary job is to work with about 50 piglets, each of which is being raised for the sole purpose of breeding more pigs.

The facility is the vision that has become reality for Duluth businessman Tom Cartier -- even though he's only been inside once, and that was before any pigs lived there. He wants the facility to remain free of any outside pathogens.

"We're not taking any chances," he said.


The piglets, Cartier and others believe, are the key to curing diabetes.

Last year the University of Minnesota announced that 12 monkeys given pig's islet cells -- those produced by the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin -- were cured of diabetes. The lead researcher on the study, Bernhard Hering, a professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, says the same treatment can cure human type 1 diabetes.

According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, up to 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, which makes a person dependant on insulin and leads to an increased chance of vision loss, stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, nerve damage and lower-limb amputations. It makes up about 5 percent to 10 percent of all diabetes cases and thousands of people die from it.

Hering and others believe that injecting healthy pig islet cells into humans can reverse their diabetes.

"What you need to call something a cure is unlimited supply and a safe anti-rejection protocol," Hering said.

The facility, located in New Richmond, Wis., is designed to be the unlimited supply. A few years ago Cartier said he met with Hering and another researcher who has been studying diabetes for several years, David Sutherland, who told Cartier that they had the answer to diabetes, but needed his help.

Cartier has a special interest in the subject -- his son, Cory, has type-1 diabetes.

"They said I could use someone to lead the charge," Cartier said. "But I didn't know if I was up for the task."


A month later, Cartier said he began assembling a team which later formed Spring Point Project. After the results of the monkey research were released last year, Spring Point announced it would lead an attempt to conduct the same research on humans. Groundbreaking on the $6.2 million facility in New Richmond began in June 2006 and was finished in February 2007.

That's a relatively quick turnaround, but speed and adherence to deadlines is part of the plan for Spring Point.

"Everything [with other studies] is always five or ten or 15 years away," said Cartier, who owns Cartier Insurance, which is located in a modest-sized building in Lincoln Park/West End. "We're not letting any timetables get away from us."

The piglets at the facility in New Richmond -- chosen because of its proximity to the University of Minnesota and relatively inexpensive land prices -- were born there, though their mothers were brought in from a facility in Huron, S.D., after the building was completely decontaminated.

Researchers say the heightened caution and security is needed to keep disease away from the pigs. Aside from having blood drawn to ensure they're free of pathogens, the herd of pigs will lead a cushy life, said Adrienne E. Schucker, Spring Point's director of veterinary medicine. They will get constant attention, high-grade food and treats, toys to play with, back scratching devices, large spaces to play in, and most importantly, the encouragement to breed.

The next generation of pigs will be euthanized and their pancreases will be harvested for the first round of clinical trials.

Spring Point hopes to begin the trials in 2009 or 2010, followed by one more round of testing. Cartier, the chairman of the Spring Point board of directors, said if the transplants are approved by the FDA, he hopes that Spring Point can begin offering islet cells to the public in five to six years at a relatively affordably cost. Spring Point is a nonprofit organization.

"Our whole goal is to make sure everybody gets cured, rich or poor," he said. "Right now, you have to be on a list to get a [human] transplant. Our goal is that you don't need a list -- that you have enough supply."


That would probably take hundreds to thousands of pigs, and Cartier said Spring Point still hasn't decided how it will deliver the islet cells to humans, whether it be at one center in Minneapolis or cells shipped around there world. And there are still other hurdles to clear, such as more research that needs to be done to ensure that humans won't reject the pig cells.

Still, those involved in Spring Point are optimistic that the research will bring ground-breaking results.

"This is the cure. It's in front of us," Hering said. "We can execute and deliver this."

BRANDON STAHL covers health. He can be reached at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at .

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