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Another Tremendous Step Forward for Diabetes Cure

Another Tremendous Step Forward for Diabetes Cure

Back in February, we told you about scientists in California who had managed to convert normal skin cells into insulin-producing pancreatic cells, urging them ever closer to the elusive cure for Type 1 diabetes. Now, another team in the US, from Harvard University, have taken their own huge step closer to discovering a cure for the condition.

Type 1 is the rarest of the two types of diabetes – 10% of diabetes cases are Type 1, with the remaining 90% being Type 2 – and affects around 400,000 people in the UK. The pancreas doesn’t produce insulin in  people with the disease, which means that the body is unable to absorb glucose from the blood.

The problem lies in beta (ß) cells from the pancreas being damaged or destroyed by the body’s own immune system. The cells are responsible for pumping out insulin, so if they are missing or not working properly, the patient is unable to regulate their own blood sugar levels.

As there is currently no cure for diabetes, treatment entails the patient having insulin injections for the rest of their life. Because of this, scientists have been looking into how to replace these damaged and missing ß-cells with ones that are able to produce insulin.

In the latest development, a team led by Professor Doug Melton were investigating if there was a way of using stem cell technology to replace the damaged or missing ß-cells. Professor Melton has been searching for a cure for more than 20 years, ever since his son and daughter were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

Professor Melton explained that while other researchers – like those in California – had been able to derive ß-cells from stem cells, his was the only team to produce mature cells that would be suitable for use in patients. The results are published in Cell.

“The biggest hurdle has been to get glucose-sensing, insulin-secreting ß-cells,” he explained. “That is what our group has done.”

After screening around 150 chemicals, the Harvard team were able to find 11 that when combined could encourage human stem cells to grow into functioning mature pancreatic ß-cells. When these cells were transplanted into mice with diabetes, they produced reliable quantities of insulin.

The new ß-cells were able to produce insulin and also control blood sugar levels for several months in the mice. This demonstrates that after further research the cells could be used for at least treating Type 1 diabetes, and potentially help about 10% of patients with Type 2, as well.

Professor Melton noted that methods like this one need to be tested numerous times before it is known for sure that they work. He explained that that the cells were given three glucose-related challenges in the mouse and they responded appropriately each time.

“It was gratifying to know that we could do something that we always thought was possible,” he enthused. “Now I’m really energised. We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line.”

At the moment, if the ß-cells were injected into a person, they would still be attacked by the immune system, so a little more research is needed before the method can be transformed into a cure. However, the team believes that clinical trials in humans can begin within only a couple of years.

Commenting on the research, University College London stem cell scientist Professor Chris Mason described it as “potentially a major medical breakthrough”.

“If this scalable technology is proven to work in both the clinic and in the manufacturing facility,” he added, “the impact on the treatment of diabetics will be a medical game-changer on a par with antibiotics and bacterial infections.”

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