Type 1 diabetes could be a thing of the past thanks to the work of scientists at Harvard University. Researchers have managed for the first time to make large quantities of cells that produce insulin.
The treatment involves manufacturing insulin-producing cells from stem cells, and has been described as a ‘phenomenal accomplishment’ that will ‘leave a dent in the history of diabetes’.
Type 1 diabetes is different to the lifestyle related Type 2 form. Type 1 diabetes is a condition that stops the pancreas producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone that the body needs to regulate and help convert sugar in food into energy.
Those with Type 1 have to endure daily injections of insulin to keep their glucose levels under control. But although diabetics can control their levels in this manner, injecting insulin is not precise enough to keep the body’s metabolism in check. This is why so many diabetics suffer from blindness or loss of limbs.
Embryonic stem cells can be ‘persuaded’ to produce any type of cell that the body requires. In this research, scientists managed to make the human insulin-producing cells that diabetes sufferers lacked.
The researcher behind the breakthrough is Harvard Professor Doug Melton, who has spent the last 23 years trying to find a cure, after his son Sam was diagnosed with Type 1 as a baby:
“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line. It was gratifying to know that we can do something that we always thought was possible.” said Prof Melton.
The trials carried out so far have only been tested on animals, but early results are encouraging, with many of the subjects still producing insulin months after treatment.
It is thought that 10% of all diabetes is Type 1, with children affected the most.
Experts from around the world have been hailing this breakthrough as ‘ground breaking’.
Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University College London, said it was ‘potentially a major medical breakthrough.’
“If this scalable technology is proven to work in both the clinic and in the manufacturing facility, the impact on the treatment of diabetes will be a medical game-changer on a par with antibiotics and bacterial infections,” he said.
Professor Elaine Fuchs, of Rockefeller University, described the findings as “one of the most important advances to date in the stem cell field”.
“For decades, researchers have tried to generate human pancreatic beta cells that could be cultured and passaged long term under conditions where they produce insulin.”
Professor Anthony Hollander, Head of Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool, added:
“This is very exciting fundamental research that solves a major roadblock in the development of a stem cell treatment for diabetes. The study provides a very elegant and convincing method for generating functional insulin-producing cells in large numbers.”
Whilst Professor Mark Dunne, at Manchester University, stated: Overall this is an important advance for the field of diabetes and people with Type 1 diabetes.”
The research has been published in the journal Cell.