Promising stem-cell treatment for diabetes highlighted in new documentary screening in Vancouver

Lana Mihell is one of 15 patients who signed up for a clinical stem cell trial in Vancouver. Researchers say the first phase of the trial showed promising results, helping people with Type 1 diabetes produce insulin on their own. (Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC - image credit)
Lana Mihell is one of 15 patients who signed up for a clinical stem cell trial in Vancouver. Researchers say the first phase of the trial showed promising results, helping people with Type 1 diabetes produce insulin on their own. (Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC - image credit)

A new film that follows more than a decade of efforts to find an effective treatment for people with Type 1 diabetes will be screening in Vancouver on Monday.

The Human Trial follows participants in an international clinical trial and filmmakers hope it gives the general public a better understanding of diabetes and the struggles of those who live with it.

The trial chronicled in the film has ties to researchers with the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease that prevents people from producing their own insulin — which is used to regulate blood sugar — because it attacks their own pancreas.

Lana Mihell of Surrey, B.C., was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 26.

"I had no idea what was happening with my body at the time," she said in an interview. "I just knew that there was something wrong."

In 2020, almost 25 years after her diagnosis, Mihell signed up for a clinical trial launched by U.S. biotech company ViaCyte.

She was one of 15 patients who had lab-grown stem cells surgically implanted in their pancreas at Vancouver General Hospital. The Vancouver study, which was part of a larger international clinical trial, showed promising results.

The study observed levels of a chain of amino acids called C-peptide, a byproduct of the body's natural formation of insulin. Injecting insulin into the body does not generate C-peptide, but researchers found that levels rose in participants after they ate a meal, indicating their bodies were once again producing insulin.

After results were published in April, Dr. David M. Thompson, a clinical assistant professor of endocrinology at UBC and director of VCH's Vancouver General Hospital Diabetes Centre who is leading the study, called it "a scientific breakthrough."

"Because of this initial success, we are now implanting larger numbers of cells in additional patients," said Thompson in a news release.

Watch: The Human Trial trailer

Documenting the search for a cure

Lisa Hepner, co-director of The Human Trial, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 21 years old.

She says she wanted to document the search for a cure, but also show the toll diabetes takes on people's physical and mental well-being.

"You look at me, I probably look very healthy to you — but I'm not inside," she said. "My organs are deteriorating."

Hepner says diabetes often comes with stigma and false assumptions. She says constantly having to monitor your own health causes anxiety, but sometimes people don't take your illness seriously because it's largely invisible.

While technology for treating diabetes has come a long away since the first insulin injections 100 years ago, Hepner says it's still not an exact science.

"Treatments keep you alive until there's a cure," she said in an interview, pointing to a cellphone application that monitors her blood sugar levels.

"But nothing's perfect, and it's not available to the population at large," she said, explaining how the cost of equipment and treatment for the disease can be prohibitive.

Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC
Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC

The film, which premiered in the U.S. in June and is available on select streaming platforms, will be screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival Centre at 6:30 p.m. Monday, which is World Diabetes Day.

Meanwhile, Thompson and his colleagues are forging ahead.

They believe the study is an important step toward developing a potential functional cure for Type 1 diabetes.

"I'm hoping within the next few years somebody will be using the device to live their life free from daily insulin injections and free from immune-suppressing drugs," said Thompson.