Stem Cell Breakthrough Brings Researchers One Step Closer To Type 1 Diabetes Cure

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online
Researchers writing in the October 9 edition of the journal Cell report they have for the first time successfully converted human embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in nearly every way to regular, normally-functioning beta cells.
The discovery, which was the work of a team led by Douglas Melton of the Harvard University Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is being hailed as a breakthrough in the search for an effective way to treat type 1 diabetes – a disease which affects an estimated three million Americans each year.
According to BBC News online health editor James Gallagher, Melton and his colleagues were able to produce hundreds of millions of the cells in their laboratory. Furthermore, their tests on mice demonstrated that the cells could treat the disease, which is caused when the immune system begins destroying the cells that are responsible for controlling blood glucose levels.
“Beta cells in the pancreas pump out insulin to bring down blood sugar levels,” Gallagher said. “But the body’s own immune system can turn against the beta cells, destroying them and leaving people with a potentially fatal disease because they cannot regulate their blood sugar levels. It is different to the far more common type 2 diabetes.”
Melton, who started his search for a cure for type 1 diabetes when his infant son Sam was diagnosed with the disease 23 years ago, said that he hopes to start human transplantation trials using the cells within a few years’ time. The professor, whose daughter also has type 1 diabetes, said in a statement that his team is now “just one preclinical step away from the finish line.”
“The breakthrough comes after 15 years of seeking a bulk recipe for making beta cells, which sense the level of sugar in the blood and keep it in a healthy range by making precise amounts of insulin,” said John Lauerman of Bloomberg Businessweek. He added that the technique, which “begins with human stem cells, which have the ability to become any type of tissue or organ,” is “an important step toward understanding and treating diabetes.”
“This is part of the holy grail of regenerative medicine or tissue engineering, trying to make an unlimited source of cells or tissues or organs that you can use in a patient to correct a disease,” added Albert Hwa, director of discovery science at JDRF, a New York-based type 1 diabetes research group that funded Melton’s work.
The Harvard researcher explained to Lauerman that their research has led to the development of a six-step recipe for making mature, insulin-secreting beta cells that takes 30 days. He added that laboratories will be able to use the cells to test drugs to treat type 1 diabetes, as well as to gain new insight as to how the disease originally occurs.
In addition, since the researchers successfully manufactured the millions of beta cells required for transplantation, Telegraph Science Editor Sarah Knapton said that it could spell the end of daily insulin injections for the 400,000 type 1 diabetes patients in the UK and the over 30,000 Americans newly diagnosed with the disease each year.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which a person’s pancreas stops producing insulin, which is the hormone that enables people to get energy from food, the JDRF explains. The disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, and when the amount of sugar in the blood is too high for too long, it can cause serious damage to the body’s organs.
Jose Oberholzer, an associate professor of surgery, endocrinology, and diabetes, as well as bioengineering, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the work “will leave a dent in the history of diabetes.” Likewise, Rockefeller University professor Elaine Fuchs called the team’s findings a “remarkable achievement.”
Fuchs added that the work was “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. Melton and his colleagues have now overcome this hurdle and opened the door for drug discovery and transplantation therapy in diabetes.”