A new method to create insulin-producing cells could lead to a pioneering type 1 diabetes treatment, researchers have said.
Teams at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and Harvard University say the new treatment relies on the person’s own stem cells to manufacture new cells that make insulin.
The findings are exciting because people with type 1 diabetes are unable to make their own insulin so they require regular insulin injections to control their blood sugar.
Researchers have managed to produce insulin-secreting cells from stem cells taken from people with type 1 diabetes, which could potentially mean injections may no longer be used.
They say tests carried out on mice show the new cells could produce insulin when they encountered sugar.
Lead author of the study Dr Jeffrey Millma, an assistant professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine, said: “In theory, if we could replace the damaged cells in these individuals with new pancreatic beta cells – whose primary function is to store and release insulin to control blood glucose – patients with type 1 diabetes wouldn’t need insulin shots anymore.
“The cells we’ve manufactured sense the presence of glucose and secrete insulin in response. And beta cells do a much better job controlling blood sugar than diabetic patients can.”
Millman said more research is required in order to ensure the beta cells derived from people with type 1 diabetes are safe and do not cause tumours to develop. So far, there has been no evidence to suggest this is the case one year on since the cells were implanted.
Millman added: “There had been questions about whether we could make these cells from people with type 1 diabetes. Some scientists thought that because the tissue would be coming from diabetes patients, there might be defects to prevent us from helping the stem cells differentiate into beta cells. It turns out that’s not the case.”
Millman said he thinks the stem cell-derived beta cells could be ready for human research in three to five years. The treatment would consist of implanting the cells under the skin of the people with diabetes patients.
For long-term treatment to be successful, the cells will still need to be protected from the autoimmune attack of type 1 diabetes or the implants will need to be carried out on a regular basis.
He said: “What we’re envisioning is an outpatient procedure in which some sort of device filled with the cells would be placed just beneath the skin.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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