A substitute for the daily drudgery of measuring glucose levels, sticking fingers, and watching insulin pumps may soon be here. A new study published on October 9, 2014 in the scientific journal Cell illustrates a new way to help diabetes patients: using stem cells.
Research conducted at Harvard University has successfully treated diabetic mice and other animals by using insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells created from embryonic stem cells. This finding is the crowning moment thus far in Dr. Douglas Melton’s 23-year quest for the type 1 diabetes cure.
Melton, a Harvard professor, considers this search close to home, as his son was diagnosed with diabetes as a baby. When reflecting on the progress of the research, he says, “It was gratifying to know that we can do something that we always thought was possible.”
Melton and his colleagues are hoping to eradicate the metabolic swings and possible complications that come with insulin injections and other modes of diabetes treatment by transplanting these beta cells into diabetes patients. These cells can then repair the damaged pancreatic cells at the very source using the very source.
Stem cells are basically chameleons—they have the potential to become any other type of cell including tissue and organ cells. In the past, the process to convert stem cells into other types of cells, such as pancreatic beta cells, was very slow and could only be done in small quantities. Through Melton’s research, they can now grow beta cells much faster and in the hundreds of millions, eventually even billions.
Melton and his associates used these newly formed insulin-producing beta cells in three separate glucose challenges in mice and all were successful. In immunocompromised mice, the beta cells didn’t just control diabetes, but cured it altogether. According to Melton, this cure can manifest itself in less than 10 days. The new challenge is then to replicate this cure in healthy animals with stable immune systems and eventually in humans. Testing is currently being done in non-human primates to see how the beta cells react when transplanted into the pancreas of animals more genetically similar to humans.
Melton hopes to begin the process of human trials in around three years, but much can happen to alter that timeline.
It may take more years of research, but nearly all in the medical community are considerably enthusiastic about this finding. “This is part of the holy grail of regenerative medicine or tissue engineering, trying to make an unlimited source of cells or tissues or organs that you can use in a patient to correct a disease,” Albert Hwa, director of discovery science at JDRF explains.
Hope for the Future
If everything runs smoothly, Melton plans on transplanting the insulin-producing beta cells into the pancreas of diabetes patients and keeping the cells there for a year or more. These cells will produce insulin in the body and eliminate most other mechanisms of diabetes management.
“It could be an amazing development for people with type 1 diabetes to not have to use insulin therapy at all,” says Richard Elliott, research communications manager at Diabetes UK in an interview with Telegraph. “To be able to have these cells transplanted into them and producing insulin in response to changes in blood glucose levels.”
JDRF, a non-profit diabetes organization, has helped fund a lot of Melton’s research. While they are happy about the findings, they warn that this is not yet a cure, as certain media outlets have gone off telling everyone a diabetes cure is here.
And yet, some of Melton’s contemporaries have equated the stem cell findings to antibiotic treatment for bacterial infections, which was a groundbreaking scientific find in its day.
As human trials come into play, we are crossing our fingers that the transplant of pancreatic beta cells works and a revolutionized way of treating type 1 diabetes is established.
To learn more about scientific breakthroughs for type 1 diabetes:
Photo courtesy of Bloomberg Businessweek