'Stunning' progress in diabetes treatment

By Owen Hembry

Auckland biotechnology company Living Cell Technologies says it is making "stunning" progress with human trials of its diabetes treatment and will open a high-tech pig breeding facility next month.

Living Cell Technologies founding director David Collinson said the new facility in Invercargill would cost $2.5 million and house up to 50 animals.

"It's completely barrier-controlled so it means every part of it is designed not to let anything in and to keep out all the germs, and also to keep the pigs happy inside," Collinson said.

The low-virus environment in New Zealand made pigs here ideal for medical use, he said.

Living Cell currently had farms in Auckland and Invercargill with about 18 animals and 40 animals respectively.

The company was also working on a treatment for Parkinson's disease and there were about 2500 disorders that could be treated with animal cell therapy, Collinson said.

The company needed to build 80 pig facilities during the next few years to meet the market demand, which would be enough to treat 30,000 to 40,000 people a year.

"It's a whole new industry for that region," he said. "We hope to make this country the biggest production place in the world for this type of technology."

The company's medical director, Bob Elliott, said trials in Russia had been extended to eight people with the last patient due to receive treatment next week.

All patients in the trial had benefited, with two people currently off insulin, Elliott said.

"To all intents and purposes they are free of diabetes, they're running normal blood glucose."

Living Cell Technologies in October was granted permission, subject to a review, by the old Labour Government to restart human trials on pig cell transplants halted in New Zealand in 1997.

Collinson said the review of safety issues had been signed off but the company was waiting for a decision from Health Minister Tony Ryall.

"The sooner we get the approval it means the sooner we can start in New Zealand and it's better for New Zealand," he said.

The company expected to spend about $2.5 billion during the next 10 years, with funding from pharmaceutical companies, institutional investors, Government and income.

"But I also think that there's a huge unmet demand from the New Zealand population to invest in new technology and new farming-type technology," Collinson said. "There's a lot of investment in New Zealand which is keen to come into it but they're waiting for the minister's approval."

Ryall said the Government was following a legal process which had been agreed by the previous Government and the company.

TYPE 1 DIABETES

THE TREATMENT
* Take insulin-producing cells from the pancreases of pigs.
* Coat the cells with a highly purified seaweed-based gel to stop rejection.
* Insert into a patient's abdomen.

THE MARKET
* Living Cell Technologies hopes to get close to commercialisation during the next 18 months.
* There are about 30 million people with Type 1 diabetes.
* Cost per treatment is estimated at $100,000.

- NZ Herald

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