Understanding the root causes of diabetes has eluded researchers for many years now.

The way in which the immune system causes the destruction of precious beta islet cells within the pancreas of type 1 diabetics is generally understood to be the key.

The ultimate goal, which has so far proved elusive, is a cure for diabetes, which could potentially be available for both types of diabetes through stem cell research.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are a form of cell that is yet to develop a specific set of traits. However, what stem cells have in abundance is the potential to develop into a number of different forms.

What is stem cell research?

Stem cell research covers the scientific study of these stem cells. Stem cell research allows researchers to grow specific varieties of human cells in the lab and research how they behave and interact under different conditions.

Stem cells open up a wide spectrum of diabetes research possibilities. In one example of diabetes stem cell research, researchers took cells from human intestine cells and disabled a gene which enabled the cells to produce insulin.

Where do stem cells come from?

Stem cells for the treatment of diabetes are able to come from a variety of sources.

These include foetal tissue from:

  • Embryos
  • The placenta
  • Umbilical cord
  • Bone marrow
  • Blood cells
  • Teeth

Stem cells in the research of type 1 diabetes

Within recent years, stem cell research has become a very important part of the scientific understanding of type 1 diabetes.

Research has demonstrated that stem cells can be grown in the lab.

In 2004, the University of Pittsburgh grew insulin producing beta cells by introducing two genes ‘cdk’ and ‘cyclin d’ via a virus.

The researchers were able to deactivate the virus and also prevent stem cells from growing further. The research could lead to a better availability of beta cells for future research purposes.

Progenitor cells

Progenitor cells, related to stem cells, are another exciting avenue of research. Like stem cells, progenitor cells are able to take on the form of a number of different types of mature human cells, however, unlike stem cells, progenitor cells cannot divide indefinitely.

Progenitor stem cells have been used to grow insulin producing cells, under lab conditions, from intestinal cells and undeveloped pancreatic cells.

Stem cells use in islet cell transplants

To cure type 1 diabetes, stem cell replacement needs to be more than simply a case of swapping insulin-producing cells from a healthy pancreas with those destroyed by diabetes in a diabetic patient.

Numerous complications preclude this as a simple treatment. Islet cell transplants are one form of procedure that has proven effective.

In type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system becomes programmed to attack the beta cells, so the patient must take immuno-suppressant drugs to prevent this happening.

In the future, it may be possible to grow islet cells from patient’s existing islet cells, however, a patient with type 1 diabetes would still need immune suppressants to prevent the cells being destroyed.

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