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Diabetes researcher leaving UPMC for Allegheny Health Network institute

Luis Fábregas
| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 1:19 p.m.
Drs. Massimo Trucco (foreground) and Nick Giannoukakis are among 19 researchers who are moving to the Allegheny Health Network.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Drs. Massimo Trucco (foreground) and Nick Giannoukakis are among 19 researchers who are moving to the Allegheny Health Network.

Stalled research into a promising treatment for type 1 diabetes will move from the University of Pittsburgh to the rival Allegheny Health Network, where human trials could start in coming months.

The research will be under the direction of Dr. Massimo Trucco, an internationally known diabetes and immune system expert who is leaving Children's Hospital of UPMC after more than two decades to take the helm of a newly established Institute of Cellular Therapeutics.

Trucco said on Tuesday that Pitt was unable to support the cost of the high-profile project, which he estimated at about $10 million over five years. He cited university rules that prevented him from serving as principal investigator.

“I worked for 40 years of my life to find something clinically useful (to treat type 1 diabetes) and now they tell me I cannot do it. If I can see tomorrow that a child is going around without diabetes and he can eat ice cream without feeling guilty, I will be happy,” Trucco told the Tribune-Review.

Officials with the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC and Children's Hospital declined to comment.

Trucco, once an integral member of transplant pioneer Thomas Starzl's team in the 1980s, and the Cellular Therapeutics institute will be based in Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. A team of 19 researchers is making the move.

Trucco said Highmark-owned AHN made him a “generous offer” to continue the project, and he will pursue federal and private funding.

Researchers at the institute want to engineer whole organs to treat liver disease, officials said. Trucco and researcher Rita Bottino, who will join him, developed gene-engineered pigs whose organs and tissue could avoid immune rejection. Organs from those animals have not been tested in humans.

“In the case of diabetes and liver disease, the need for new and better preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic strategies is particularly urgent,” said Alan Russell, chief innovation officer at AHN.

In those who have type 1 diabetes, T cells from the immune system travel to the pancreas and destroy insulin-producing beta cells. Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates the body's use of sugar. As many as 3 million Americans have the disease, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It usually is diagnosed in children and young adults.

In 2008, Trucco and his team announced that an experimental vaccine developed in their laboratory prevented and reversed type 1 diabetes in mice. The researchers made a version of the treatment for humans.

It is not necessarily a vaccine but rather a type of treatment against the disease, Trucco said.

Researchers successfully completed the first of three phases to test the safety of the treatment in 2010, he said.

The second phase of trials has been stalled because the National Institutes of Health cut grant money. Had he obtained federal support, Trucco said, Pitt would have required that a considerable amount of it go to overhead costs.

For example, the researchers would have to pay $86 per square foot for space, including corridors, conference rooms and bathrooms, Trucco said. Pitt charged $50,000 a year for each research bay occupied in the laboratory, he said.

The diabetes treatment works by extracting a patient's cells and modifying them outside the body to block their ability to stop insulin production. The cells are re-injected into the patient's abdomen.

Trucco said it is not known how long the reprogrammed cells block the immune system from attacking insulin-producing cells.

“I would like to finish in glory if I can,” Trucco said. “Call me a romantic idiot, fine, but that's what I would like to accomplish.”

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media's medical editor. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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