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Still from The Human Trial

The Human Trial documentary film is an intimate look at the overwhelming, messy and unpredictable nature of living with type 1 diabetes alongside a similarly defined clinical trial seeking to fund and find a cure for the condition. Directors Lisa Hepner and Guy Mossman have painstakingly worked on The Human Trial for more than a decade, as producer and writer and director of photography respectively. Abramorama released the film in theaters on June 24, 2022.

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 21, Hepner, who narrates the film, represents millions of people in the diabetes community – including families, healthcare professionals, advocates and more – who would do anything to put an end to the auto-immune condition that leads to terrible complications and early mortality.

Mossman calls his documentary an observational film and it is hard to disagree. The cinéma vérité approach allows the audience to experience the relentless burden diabetes exacts on the people it touches. In the first scene, we watch Hepner prick her finger for blood while her 3-year-old son Jack looks at the test strip in the glucose meter. He is excited but turns quiet, while we observe the countdown and Jack tells his mother the result—2-9-4.  Hepner brushes off her disappointment, wryly asking her husband to test his glucose. Mossman complies with Lisa’s request, but the result, 96 mg/dL is startling. The health gap between Jack’s parents is a poignant reminder of the difficult impact disease has on a family. “I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to outrun diabetes, but it’s not working,” says Hepner as she prepares for an appointment with her nurse practitioner, expressing hope to stave off retinopathy and blindness. Without adequate care for blood glucose stability, what will tomorrow bring for this young family? When the well-meaning public questions prioritising a diabetes cure because insulin is often misrepresented as the answer, The Human Trial offers a strong rationale for funding diabetes cure research.

When the well-meaning public questions prioritising a diabetes cure because insulin is often misrepresented as the answer, The Human Trial offers a strong rationale for funding diabetes cure research.

The film is always on the move, symbolic of the stamina it takes to both manage a chronic condition and fight for cures.  From her car, Hepner asks “Why is the cure for diabetes taking so long?”  and we wonder, too. Viacyte, a California Bio-tech company, gives Hepner and Mossman real-time access to film various aspects of their first clinical trial – only the sixth-ever embryonic stem cell trial in the world. It’s clear the film has moved away from the personal sphere into medical science and in a sense, the business of diabetes. We become onlookers to an employee filled conference room celebration and listen to former Viacyte CEO, Paul Laikind, announce FDA approval for the biotech’s first human clinical trial with a bio-artificial pancreas. We feel the impact of their excitement and anxiety.

Will our methods work?  Will we run out of money?

Trials take place across the world but Hepner and Mossman’s camera lands at the University of Minnesota where the first participants, who are high risk for acute life-threatening complications, are implanted with multiple small-format cell-filled devices called sentinels to evaluate safety and viability. Maren, aka Patient 1, suffers from hypoglycemic unawareness and seizures, and Gregory, Patient 2, is concerned about vision loss. Their ability to deal with adversity is uncanny, and their fortitude as pioneers on a surgical journey to the unknown is inspiring to watch. We observe the operating room from above as Maren and Gregory are implanted and witness the risks associated with the new therapeutic approach.  They have similar questions to the Viacyte team, but the stakes are higher.

Could I be cured?

Participants in clinical trials are not usually given any indication of outcomes before trial completion. This is understandably excruciating for Maren and Gregory during the trial. The countless surgeries and tests are grueling, and we are gripped by their resilience on the screen and our mutual desire for a positive outcome.

The Human Trial gives visibility to the invisible—the often-hidden and challenged lives of people with type 1 diabetes and the thousands of scientists and researchers working arduously to fund and discover cures. The film’s subjects are not just fighters; they have accepted how obstacles, even failures, are a part of the journey to success. I call that courage.

Click here to see where you can watch The Human Trial.


Elizabeth Snouffer is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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