Novo boss sees stem cells as next big thing in diabetes: Bloomberg

It’s all very early stage, and a lot can happen from conception to first human trial (including many times not getting into human testing at all), but Novo Nordisk’s outgoing chief thinks his company is on to a potential cure for diabetes.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Lars Rebien Sorensen, who recently announced he would be leaving at the end of his contract this year, said a stem cell therapy approach that could cure the Type 1 version of diabetes could be in the clinic in five years. “This will happen,” he tells Bloomberg, in what will likely be one of his last interviews as CEO.

Novo is the world’s leading diabetes company but focuses on, essentially, maintenance therapies centered on keeping blood sugar levels low, insulin levels healthy at the right times, while also reducing the risks of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia.

Those who develop Type 1 diabetes tend to do so at a young age, where the pancreas doesn't produce any insulin, and is a lifelong, autoimmune condition which needs to managed daily.

Some patients with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity and often happens later in life, can still produce insulin, but at lower levels, and require oral meds such as metformin and, if the disease develops, insulin and other hybrid meds such as Novo's Victoza, to keep their levels at the right range, especially before and after meals.

Loss of body weight can in some circumstances help reverse this form of the disease, or lessen its impact, but this is not the case with Type 1. Having both forms of diabetes can increase the risk of early for patients from CV disease, stroke and kidney failure, so a cure for Type 1 form would be highly beneficial for patients.

The idea from Novo to help achieve this is to use stem cells, something that it also being done by J&J and ViaCyte, to create functional, insulin-producing cells.

“Major wins” in some early work has raised the hopes for Novo’s stem cell research, Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Novo’s chief science officer, also told Bloomberg.

Novo said it now can cure diabetic mice with embryonic stem cells that it developed into insulin-producing cells, although “there is still some way to go to take this into humans,” the company told the news service.  

The company said it was now working with other groups to find new tech that could create a barrier around the cells to help protect them from being assaulted by the body’s immune system, a common problem with this type of therapy.

Don’t expect to see any results anytime soon, but Sorensen clearly hopes this will be a major legacy from Novo in the future.