In the recent State of the Cure 2014 report, the Stem Cell Educator was identified as one of the eight Practical Cure projects currently in human clinical trials.
The Stem Cell Educator, led by Dr. Yong Zhao at the Hackensack Medical Center, is an immune system retraining method. Over several hours, a patient’s blood continuously passes through a machine which exposes blood cells involved in the autoimmune attack to cord blood stem cells, which ‘remind’ the immune system how to act properly. Phase II trials have started and we look forward to the results which will reveal how frequently the procedure must be performed. The following interview with Dr. Yong Zhao shares the details.
Nick Masercola: How did you and your team get involved in type 1 diabetes research?
Dr. Yong Zhao: I got my start working at the University of Chicago with a focus in stem cell research, eventually moving into how to make them treat/cure autoimmune disease. From there, I eventually moved into the realm of type 1 diabetes when I came to the idea of reprogramming stem cells into insulin producing beta cells and reprogramming them to train the others.
NM: Please describe to us non-scientists what Stem Cell Educator does.
YZ: The simple answer would be that it educates the immune system, but I cannot define a word with a word. We take stem cells from cord blood and turn them into correctly working beta cells, and them implant them in your body. They work as a teacher would with students to the hosts beta cells, correcting them and helping them follow the correct procedure to function.
NM: How many years have you been on this journey?
YZ: 12 years.
NM: What are 3 things about your project that you want the type 1 diabetes community to know?
YZ: First: It’s safe. It’s heading into phase 2, so it’s been approved for safety. A three year old was even used in the phase 1 trials, and everything went fine. We are one of the safest projects currently in human trials.
Second: The trial has proved it can control autoimmunity and restore balance, and this next trial is just to see if it can be brought to a broader spectrum of people.
Third: It’s a solution that works better the faster it is implemented in your body. The more beta cells that are still alive, the better “re-training” goes. Growing the beta cells back for training is a more difficult, lengthy process. To use the above example, the longer a student has bad habits, the harder it will be to correct them.
NM: If successful, how will it change the lives of people living with T1D?
YZ: Depends on patient’s state. The sooner the therapy is applied the better. Even in longer-diagnosed patients, there is evidence that their metabolic rate improves after the Stem Cell Educator is used.
NM: In what stage of human trials is Stem Cell Educator? When can we expect to learn the next set of results?
YZ: Have been approved for phase 2, but are currently trying to secure funding for the entirety of the trial.
NM: Are you still recruiting for the trial? If so, how can people get in touch with you?
YZ: Yes, you can apply through our clinical trials page: http://clinicaltrials.gov/show/NCT01350219
NM: What are the biggest obstacles your team faces?
YZ: Funding. Currently we do not have enough to complete the trial. That, and FDA regulation can be extremely difficult to navigate. I have a mobile lab, and have been attempting to perform trials in Hackensack NJ.
NM: What can the type 1 diabetes community do to support your project?
YZ: We now take donations, in addition to submitting proposals for NIH funding. Honestly, it’s mainly getting the money to finish the trial. It’s exhausting trying to get funding, and it slows the whole process down tremendously.