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Stem cells offer new hope for type 1 diabetes treatment

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Scientists believe they have made a “giant leap forward” in the quest to find an effective treatment for type 1 diabetes.

Using human embryonic stem cells as a starting point, experts have for the first time been able to produce human insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in almost every way to normally functioning beta cells in the kind of massive quantities needed for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes.

“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line”

Doug Melton

A report on the work by US researchers has been published in the latest edition of the journal Cell.

Doug Melton, Xander University Professor at Harvard University, who led the work, said he hopes to have human transplantation trials using the cells under way within a few years.

The stem cell-derived beta cells are presently undergoing trials in animal models, including non-human primates.


Doug Melton

Professor Melton, who is also co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said the device being tested has so far protected beta cells implanted in mice from immune attack for many months.

“There have been previous reports of other labs deriving beta cell types from stem cells, no other group has produced mature beta cells as suitable for use in patients,” he said.

“The biggest hurdle has been to get to glucose-sensing, insulin-secreting beta cells, and that’s what our group has done,” he said. “We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line.”

Cell transplantation as a treatment for diabetes is still essentially experimental, uses cells from cadavers, requires the use of powerful immunosuppressive drugs, and has been available to only a very small number of patients.

“[This researh has] opened the door for drug discovery and transplantation therapy in diabetes”

Elaine Fuchs

Professor Elaine Fuchs, from 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

Rockefeller University

Elaine Fuchs

passaged long term under conditions where they produce insulin. (Professor) Melton and his colleagues have now overcome this hurdle and opened the door for drug discovery and transplantation therapy in diabetes,” she said.

Around 10% of all diabetes is type 1, but it is the most common type of childhood diabetes.

It is an autoimmune condition that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin. If the amount of glucose in the blood is too high it can seriously damage the body’s organs over time.

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