Hog heaven: Spring Point still on track for 2009 human trials
The baby piglets at the Spring Point Project facility in New Richmond aren't frolicking in the mud to keep cool this summer.
They live in an air-conditioned facility, breathe filtered air and drink disinfected water. They're fed a special diet and their every need is attended to by a crew of specialists. Call it hog heaven.
Why do these farm animals deserve such special treatment?
These young piglets will eventually be donors for the first human trials in a project aimed at curing insulin-dependent diabetes.
Researchers believe that islet cells in each pig's pancreas holds the key to a cure. Previous tests have proven promising in monkeys, and the next step is to try the transplant on humans.
Since the 21,000-square-foot biosecure facility opened in early 2007, Spring Point's skilled veterinarian and animal care staff have been raising pigs in a hyper-clean environment.
The Food and Drug Administration requires such medical research organizations to raise second- or third-generation pigs in a clean environment if they are eventually to be used in human transplantation.
Spring Point's first wave of second-generation pigs was born April 28. Another group of pigs several weeks ago, and another litter is expected by the end of July or early August.
"We have been pretty successful," said Dr. Henk-Jan Schuurman, CEO of Spring Point Project. "You are talking to a happy man. This is indeed a major step."
In a telephone interview Thursday, Schuurman said the push toward human transplantation remains on target. Officials hope the first clinical trials will occur at the end of 2009.
As the non-profit organization meets and exceeds all expectations, Schuurman said word is spreading about the promising research that could result in a cure for diabetes.
As more people become aware of Spring Point's efforts, more are pledging financial support for the organization.
Schuurman said Spring Point has forged a partnership with Lion's Clubs across the region, becoming a recognized project that clubs are encouraged to support.
"This is great news," Schuurman said. "It opens the possibility of going nationwide with our fund-raising efforts through the Lion's Club."
Spring Point has also had several successful fund-raising efforts to help pay the bills during the research phase of the project.
"I'm proud of and grateful for all the support we've received," he said. "It's becoming easier to talk about our work and to reach out. Now we can tell people about all we have achieved, and they can see it for themselves."
Even with all the good news, Schuurman said the wait for clinical trials to begin is difficult.
On June 24, one of Spring Point's major volunteer supporters, Zachary Foucault of Esko, Minn., died due to complications related to diabetes. He was 31 years old.
"He would have been an ideal candidate for a transplant," Schuurman said. "He didn't make it. We were too late for him."
Foucault's death did serve as a reminder of Spring Point's ultimate mission -- saving lives.
"This is our motivation," Schuurman said. "This is the passion of our people. Any delay or failure is difficult, but this process is not like taking a simple aspirin or anything like that. It takes time."
The key discovery that gave birth to Spring Point occurred in 2006 when Dr. Bernhard Hering, scientific director of the Diabetes Institute for Immunology & Transplantation at the University of Minnesota, successfully transplanted pig islet cells into monkeys. The diabetic monkeys showed marked improvement after the surgery.
Human-to-human islet transplantation has long been considered a treatment and possible cure for diabetes. But because diabetes is such a global disease, a larger supply of islet cells was needed.
That's where the clean pigs come in.
Spring Point Project is helping grow a population of medical grade pigs so that, once a cure is realized, diabetes sufferers will find the treatment to be widely available and affordable.
The New Richmond facility will eventually be home to approximately 100 pigs.
"These pigs will usher in a new way of life for people with diabetes," said Tom Cartier, chairman of Spring Point Project. "In the coming years, we expect people with diabetes to be able to lead lives free of insulin injections."