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NASA microgravity research could lead to diabetes cure

International Space Station
International Space Station

When NASA asks for money for its various projects such as the International Space Station, one of the selling points was that the biomedical research that would be conducted in space would lead to cures for various diseases. A Friday story in National Review suggests that the promise may be about to be fulfilled in the form of a cure for diabetes. If so it would be boon to millions of people who suffer from the disease.

Diabetes is a condition that involves an excess of glucose in the blood which can in turn lead to a variety of health conditions, including blindness, nerve damage to the extremities, and death. The disease is divided into type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is an innate condition that is usually diagnosed in childhood. Type 2 is related with obesity and usually shows up later in life. Sufferers of diabetes are obliged to constantly monitor their blood glucose levels, adhere to special diets, and take insulin.

Where NASA sponsored research comes into play stems from an experiment that was first flown on the space shuttle Challenger in 1985 that explored the physics involving encapsulation. Dr. Taylor Wang, Ph.D was the payload specialist on that mission who did the research. As a result of that and other microgravity research, a company called Encapsulife has applied for a patent for what would be in effect a diabetes patch. It would be effectively a cure for diabetes.

The way it would work is that the patch would contain thousands of islet cells, derived from either live human donors or medically raised pigs. The islets would be able to process glucose into insulin, making it in effect an artificial pancreas. The encapsulating research done on NASA missions allows the patch to shield the islets from white blood cells and other immune mechanisms.

If the diabetes patch passes the various human trials tests it would become a cure for diabetes. Nine million people suffer from diabetes in the United States with 71,000 dying from the disease every year. Unknown numbers of people go blind or suffer amputations as a result of diabetes. The disease costs $245 billion dollars a year in the United States, including $110 billion from Medicare, roughly 20 percent of its budget. Thus the diabetes patch could save millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.