Some people who are prone to understatement might describe it as “significant” and “remarkable,” while other, excitable types might call it “incredible” and “phenomenal” and “huge.” To say the least, a new study in the journal Cell is groundbreaking:
Harvard stem cell researchers today announced that they have made a giant leap forward in the quest to find a truly effective treatment for type 1 diabetes, a condition that affects an estimated 3 million Americans at a cost of about $15 billion annually:
With human embryonic stem cells as a starting point, the scientists are for the first time able to produce, in the kind of massive quantities needed for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes, human insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in most every way to normally functioning beta cells.
Rob Stein explains things simply:
“We are reporting the ability to make hundreds of millions of cells — the cell that can read the amount of sugar in the blood which appears following a meal and then squirts out or secretes just the right amount of insulin,” Melton says.
The advance came after laboring for more than 15 years to find a way to turn human embryonic stem cells into so-called beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin.
Researchers were able to cure — cure! — insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in mice by transplanting these insulin-producing cells. In 10 days!
For Doug Melton, stem cell scientist and co-author of the study, finding a cure is personal:
His son, Sam, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 6 months old, and his daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 14.
“I do what any parent would do, which is to say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this, and I want to find a better way,’ ” he says.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune cells attack and destroy insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. Insulin is a hormone that regulates glucose metabolism. In its absence, high blood sugar levels lead to chronic problems in practically every organ of the body unless insulin is delivered by injection, usually multiple times a day. Dr. Melton’s current research project — finding a way to protect these newly transplanted insulin-producing cells from being attacked by the diabetic’s own immune system — is also showing success. And continued success, says Ariana Eunjung Cha, means eventually, a cure:
Jose Olberholzer, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois whose research is focused on diabetes, described the treatment as akin to creating a new “mini-organ” in a patient’s body.
“It would be a functional cure for a patient,” Olberholzer said. “The underlying disease would still be present but the fact that these insulin-producing cells are there would mean that they would effectively have normal lives.”
This is huge!