MASSACHUSETTS, United States, Tuesday February 2, 2016 – A cure for type 1 diabetes is closer than ever after scientists showed they can switch off the disease for six months in animals, which would equate to several years in humans.
Experts from US hospitals and institutions, including Harvard University, transplanted insulin-producing cells, which had been generated from human stem cells, into mice. They immediately began producing insulin.
The researchers were also able to demonstrate that they could prevent the cells being rendered useless by the body’s own immune system, which was effectively “switched off.”
The findings build on the news at the end of 2014 that researchers at Harvard University had discovered how to make huge quantities of insulin-producing cells in a breakthrough hailed as significant as antibiotics.
The scientist who spearheaded that breakthrough – Harvard Professor Doug Melton, who has been trying to find a cure for type 1 diabetes since his son Sam was diagnosed with the disease as a baby – also worked on the new studies.
The human islet cells used for the new research were generated from human stem cells developed by Professor Melton.
Once implanted in mice, the cells immediately began producing insulin in response to blood glucose levels, and were able to maintain blood glucose within a healthy range for 174 days – the length of the study.
The development could mean the end of daily insulin injections for people living with type 1 diabetes. Instead they would simply need a transfusion of engineered cells every few years.
The findings are published in the journals Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology and were made possible with funding from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
“These therapies have the potential to be ground-breaking for people with type 1 diabetes,” said Julia Greenstein, Vice President of Discovery Research at JDRF, the world’s leading type 1 diabetes research charity.
“They effectively establish long-term insulin independence and eliminate the daily burden of managing the disease for months, possibly years, at a time without the need for immune suppression.
“We hope to see this research progress into human clinical trials and ultimately a potential new type 1 diabetes therapy.”
The latest research was carried out by teams at Harvard, MIT, The University of Illinois, Boston Children’s Hospital and the University of Massachusetts.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin – the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels.
If the amount of glucose in the blood is too high it can seriously damage the body’s organs over time.
To survive, people with type 1 diabetes must test their blood-sugar levels throughout the day by either pricking their fingers to draw blood or using a continuous glucose monitor, and then administer insulin through multiple daily injections.
While diabetics can keep their glucose levels under general control by injecting insulin, that does not provide the fine tuning necessary to properly control metabolism, which can lead to devastating complications such as blindness or loss of limbs.
Around 10 per cent of all diabetes is type 1, but it is the most common type of childhood diabetes.