Australian researchers’ diabetes breakthrough could eliminate need for daily insulin injections

Dr Khurana says he is looking forward to working collaboratively with Indian and Pacific researchers active in this field to find solutions that would help the community.

Australian researchers based at Monash University have published a paper entitled ‘Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy‘ in the Nature journal that could lead to the regeneration of insulin in pancreatic stem cells.

According to Diabetes Australia, this is the fastest-growing illness in the country. At present, 1.8 million Australians suffer from diabetes and 500 million have the disease globally. Diabetes Australia says that Australians need to rethink diabetes:

“Every year 700,000 people living with diabetes experience mental or emotional health challenges. That’s because living with diabetes is not easy. It’s not a choice. And there are no days off.”

The study is led by diabetes experts Dr Keith Al-Hasani, Professor Sam El-Osta, and Dr Ishant Khurana, from the Monash Department of Diabetes. The researchers have developed “a revolutionary method to regenerate insulin cells without the ethical concerns that are commonly associated with embryonic stem cells.”

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Monash University notes that their research “may lead to a potential treatment option for insulin-dependent diabetes which is diagnosed in seven Australian children every day resulting in a lifetime testing of blood glucose and daily insulin injections, to replace the insulin no longer produced by a damaged pancreas.”

2021 group. L-R: Mr Jairo Arturo Pinzon Cortes, Ms Mie Jensen, Dr Keith Al-Hasani, Dr Ishant Khurana, Professor Sam El-Osta, Dr Jun Okabe, Dr Scott Maxwell, Dr Harikrishnan Kaipananickal (Monash University)

Dr Keith Al-Hasani, one of the authors of the research study, told ABC, that “there are different forms of diabetes and it’s a disease that requires relentless attention.”

For Type 1 diabetes, generally first presents when patients are children, up to five insulin injections per day are required as young people adjusted to the disease. Dr Al-Hasani adds that Adult sufferers can administer up to 100 shots a month to manage the illness.

Professor El-Osta observes that by the time an individual is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (T1D)  many of their pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin, have been totally destroyed. He adds:

“Patients rely on daily insulin injections to replace what would have been produced by the pancreas. Currently, the only other effective therapy requires pancreatic islet transplantation and while this has improved health outcomes for individuals with diabetes, transplantation relies on organ donors, so it has limited widespread use.” 

Dr Ishant Khurana (Twitter)

Co-author Dr Khurana, a research fellow in the El-Osta research group at the Department of Diabetes, said: “we’re reprogramming cells that don’t generally produce insulin, to express insulin now.” He adds:

“This is a big breakthrough in the diabetes realm.”

Dr Khurana’s major research interests are understanding the role of epigenetic changes and transcriptional regulation implicated in human health and disease. As an expert in comparative analyses and biostatistics for the integration of epigenetic data, Dr Khurana’s work is critical for large-scale projects like these. In 2017, he was also the recipient of the ‘Young Investigator Award – East meets West Symposium.’

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Insulin (Wikimedia commons)

Dr Khurana’s parents migrated to Australia from India in the early 1990s when he was 7 years old. He told The Australia Today that the stories about this “complex human disease” in India and the Pacific motivated him to take up this research field.

“The burden of this complex disease in our community and especially to discover the unknown motivated me to delve deeper into research.”

Dr Khurana points out that diabetes is very common in Fiji with almost 1 in 3 Fijians diagnosed with this disease. He adds:

“I am looking forward to working collaboratively with Indian and Pacific researchers active in this field to find solutions that would help the community.”

For the current project, the researchers are using a compound GSK126 which is approved for use to treat another condition by the US Food and Drug Administration. The researchers point out that so far this compound has not been used for diabetes treatment in Australia or elsewhere. 

As diabetes cases rise globally, researchers worldwide are facing the challenge of improving treatments. Monash researchers acknowledged that there is still a long way to go in diabetes research before a potential treatment could be used in humans. Dr Al-Hasani says that “more work is required to define the properties of these cells and establish protocols to isolate and expand them.” He adds:

“I would think therapy is pretty far away. However, this represents an important step along the way to devising a lasting treatment that might be applicable for all types of diabetes.”

Dr Khurana says the ultimate goal of their research is to eliminate the need for daily insulin injections.