Promising results from the trial of a new stem-cell based treatment has led to experts saying it is “only a matter of time” before daily insulin injections are no longer needed for people with type 1 diabetes.

Through a small, plaster-size device that is implanted just under the skin, the treatment aims to replace the insulin-making beta cells that are not made by people with type 1 diabetes.

The Canadian clinical trial, by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), found that the therapy can regulate levels of blood glucose and reduce the need for daily insulin injections.

Dr David Thompson, principal investigator at the Vancouver trial site, clinical professor of endocrinology at UBC and director of the Vancouver General Hospital Diabetes Centre, said: “This is a significant step toward a functional cure for type 1 diabetes.

“For the first time, a stem cell-based device can reduce the amount of insulin required for some trial participants with type 1 diabetes. With further refinement of this approach, it’s only a matter of time until we have a therapy that can eliminate the need for daily insulin injections entirely.”

The device, known as VC-02, is designed to provide a long-term, steady stream of insulin, carries millions of pancreatic islet cells, including beta cells, that have been grown in a laboratory from pluripotent stem cells.

Co-author Dr Timothy Kieffer, a professor within the departments of surgery and cellular and physiological sciences at UBC, said: “Each device is like a miniature insulin-producing factory.

“The pancreatic islet cells, grown from stem cells, are packaged into the device to essentially recreate the blood sugar-regulating functions of a healthy pancreas.

“This may have tremendous benefits over transplant of scarcely available donor-derived cells, given that we can create a virtually limitless supply.”

The trial involved 10 participants who were not producing insulin at the beginning of the study.

After six months, significant markers of insulin production were found in three of the participants, levels which were maintained throughout the duration of the rest of the 12-month study.

In addition, the three participants improved the amount of time they spent in optimal blood glucose range and also reduced the amount of insulin they needed to inject.

One participant improved their time in range from 55% to 85% and cut their daily insulin administration by 44%.

The trial was funded by Canada’s Stem Cell Network, with the SCN’s president and CEO Cate Murray saying: “The Stem Cell Network is delighted to support this clinical trial and we’re pleased to see the promising results.

“Moving toward a functional cure for diabetes will require a coordinated and collaborative effort. It takes excellent science by top researchers in world-leading institutions, funders, like SCN, that de-risk research, and innovative biotech companies that can manufacture and scale the technology.

SCN is proud to play its part and we look forward to what’s next in game-changing diabetes research.”

The researchers are conducting another trial to test whether another version of the device could negate the need for immunosuppressant drugs to be taken alongside the treatment, using cells that have been modified to evade the immune system.

Dr Thompson said: “We envision a future where people with type 1 diabetes are able to live their lives free from daily insulin injections and free from immune-suppressing drugs. That future is now within reach, and Canada is leading the way in efforts to bring these novel treatments to patients.”

Read the study in Nature Biotechnology.

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