Giving hope to the world’s 220 million diabetes sufferers

Two McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) research teams are making major advances in treating type 1 diabetes. Diabetes affects an estimated 285 million people worldwide—including more than 3 million Canadians, 10 per cent of whom have Type 1 diabetes. In response to this growing health risk, McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and McGill University researchers are working hard to make quality of life and living with Type 1 diabetes two concepts that go together.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when islets of Langerhans, found in the pancreas, become dysfunctional or are destroyed and therefore stop producing insulin or produce too little insulin, a hormone which regulates blood glucose levels. It is typically recognized in childhood or adolescence but it can occur in an older individual due to destruction of the pancreas by alcohol, disease, or removal by surgery. It also results from progressive failure of the pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin.

There is currently no cure for diabetes and it can only be partially controlled through regular insulin injections.


A team led by Dr. Constantin Polychronakos of McGill’s Endocrine Genetics Laboratory at The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI MUHC) used state-of-the-art technologies to identify a gene (rfX6) mutated in a rare syndrome that affects very young babies with type 1 diabetes.  Children with this syndrome are born without islets of Langerhans.

Research collaborator Michael German of the University of California, San Francisco, showed the same outcome in mice whose rfX6 genes had been intentionally disrupted.

“The door is now open to finding a cure for type 1 diabetes through gene therapy or therapeutics,” says Dr. Polychronakos. 


An innovative study involving a new treatment called Exsulin has begun at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC). Under the direction of Dr. Georges Tsoukas, who supervises the Montreal General Hospital Diabetes Clinic at the MUHC, lead researcher Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg of the MUHC and McGill University Faculty of Medicine and colleagues have been using Exsulin for more than 25 years to stimulate the regrowth of insulin-producing cells in patients with type 1 diabetes. The study is being conducted in partnership with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“Experiments with animal models have demonstrated that Exsulin injections help restore insulin production,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “Mice injected with this treatment were actually cured of their diabetes.” The results of previously conducted human trials have indicated that Exsulin triggers at least a partial recovery of natural insulin secretion. Although at this stage of development

it may not completely control the amount of circulating glucose, Exsulin does improve the balance of glucose in the body, which prevents the dramatic fluctuations that can lead to the main complications of diabetes: nerve damage, kidney failure, blindness and heart disease.

“Exsulin could help rebuild the islets of Langerhans’ entire structure, restoring near-normal metabolic control,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “It’s something that no diabetes treatment currently can do.”