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Patient 13

A diabetes researcher gives a film crew unparalleled access

Filmmaker Lisa Hepner, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes nearly two decades ago, kept trying to think of ways to use movies to illustrate the many emotions – both positive and negative – that may often be a part of living with diabetes. She kept talking about it with her husband, Guy Mossman – a cameraman and director of photography – with friends, and even with her doctors.

Then, during one appointment, her doctor told her, “You have to meet Scott King. He’s another one of my patients, and he’s done research on diabetes in rats.”

“Rats,” Lisa thought. Like other people living with type 1 diabetes, she had heard a lot about trials that had studied diabetes in rodents over the years, but were never heard from again. She didn’t hold out much hope about her doctor’s suggestion, but she sought out King anyway. Good thing she did.

Scott R. King, scientist, entrepreneur, and person living with type 1 diabetes since 1977, has been working for close to thirty years on a device called the Islet Sheet, which looks like a transparent business card. Insulin-producing islet cells inside the Islet Sheet are encapsulated to protect them from the patient’s immune system, while still being able to receive the nutrients they need to survive and function. If the Islet Sheet is successful, it could stabilize blood glucose levels for people living with diabetes who are insulin-dependent without the use of daily injected insulin. In other words; and if King gets his way, he will be the eponymous Patient 13  –  the thirteenth patient in his own clinical trial.

Lisa and Guy immediately knew they were onto a great story, but the first challenge was to find funding. In November 2011, they began a Kickstarter™ campaign that reached its goal of $30,000, and then some, in thirty days. It also allowed them to start building an audience. They actively targeted the diabetes community, diabetes bloggers, and documentary film fans, and their efforts procured donations from far-flung places like Lithuania, Poland, and Australia. But a film shot over several years, as Lisa conceived of Patient 13, needs more money than that to be completed.

Lisa and Guy estimate that, so far, they have shot twenty percent of the documentary. They began filming in February 2011 when they visited the Hanuman Medical Foundation lab, in San Francisco, where King and his team of scientists invented the Islet Sheet. Since then, they have been following the team as it has progressed with clinical trials. The Islet Sheet team is soon starting trials in large animals at the University of California, Irvine.

As Lisa and Guy follow the Islet Sheet journey, King has allowed them to follow him with no restrictions, ranging from filming him at an appointment with his personal doctor to having a low while performing surgery in the pilot study. “It’s rare for filmmakers to get a front row seat to a potential medical breakthrough,” Lisa said.

If everything goes well in animal trials, the Islet Sheet scientists will launch a human trial. Patients in the trial will receive an Islet Sheet transplant, and within seventy-two hours, they should have a good idea if it’s working.

Lisa hopes Patient 13 will take public awareness to new heights through a non-traditional platform. And most of all, Lisa hopes the film will have a happy ending, one in which King realizes his dream to cure the disease that he was diagnosed with at age twenty-one.

But in film, as in diabetes, little is certain.

Jessica Apple is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online diabetes lifestyle magazine A Sweet Life. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Financial Times Magazine, The Southern Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Tablet Magazine. Apple is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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