Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition which, if left unchecked, can become a serious threat to health. Now, US scientists have made a breakthrough that could revolutionise treatment for this disease.
What is type 1 diabetes?
Sufferers of type 1 diabetes have dangerously high levels of glucose (blood sugar) in the blood due to an inability of the pancreas to produce insulin – a hormone that delivers glucose from the blood into cells, to be used as fuel.
The condition is usually treated with regular injections of replacement insulin. However, if left unchecked, type 1 diabetes can be very serious, as too much glucose in the blood causes irrevocable harm to blood vessels and organs.
Stem cell breakthrough
Experts from Harvard University have for the first time managed to use stem cells to produce another type of cell known as a beta cell, which is usually found in the pancreas and creates insulin.
The researchers, led by Professor Doug Melton, have managed to produce the beta cells in such quantities that it would be possible to transplant the new cells into the pancreas of patients with type 1 diabetes.
Until now, the experimental process of cell transplantation has only been used on a handful of patients, as the cells need to be taken from cadavers and used in conjunction with powerful immunosuppressive drugs to stop the new body rejecting them.
The beta cells were created using human embryonic stem cells. Trials are currently under way in animals to test the cells’ effectiveness.
Facts about type 1 diabetes
Here are some things you might not know about type 1 diabetes:
- The condition is usually diagnosed in childhood, but can appear at any age, typically before 40.
- Regular incidents of the common yeast infection thrush can indicate the onset of type 1 diabetes.
- Presently, type 1 diabetes has no cure, but it can be managed with regular insulin injections.
- The beta cells of a person with type 1 diabetes stop working because their body’s own immune system mistakenly sees them as harmful and destroys them. This is why the disease is known as an autoimmune disease.
- People with a brother, sister, mother or father with type 1 diabetes carry a 6% chance of developing the condition. The risk drops to 0.5% for those who do not have a close relative with the disease.
The latest research by Prof Melton and colleagues has been described as “one of the most important advances to date in the stem cell field”.
Professor Elaine Fuchs, of Rockefeller University, said:
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) Melton and his colleagues have now overcome this hurdle and opened the door for drug discovery and transplantation therapy in diabetes.