There is good news for diabetic patients. They will no longer need to inject insulin – thanks to a treatment involving the use of insulin-producing cells which Harvard University scientists discovered how to make.
The cure could, therefore, be imminent as the scientists have produced large volumes of laboratory-grown pancreatic cells required for one-off transplantation in patients.
The breakthrough has been hailed and compared to the invention of antibiotics. It involved identifying how to efficiently turn both stem cell types into beta cells.
The cells, millions of which were manufactured, produced insulin, responded to glucose, worked on mice for many months and will soon be used to treat humans.
The discovery is the result of 23 years of research by Harvard Professor Doug Melton, whose study of type 1 diabetes was prompted by his son having the condition as a six-month-old. His daughter received the same diagnoses.
The cells could be used to treat all patients rather than each person needing their own genetically matched treatment.
The cells tested on mice were placed in a porous capsule to protect them from attacks by the body’s immune system, while allowing the insulin to diffuse out.
This means the cells could be produced on an industrial scale and used on patients without possible immune rejection, while the capsule could be replaced if it stopped working.
A report on the work is published in the October 10 edition of the journal Cell . Online reports quoted Prof Melton as saying: “It was gratifying to know that we could do something that we always thought was possible, but many people felt it wouldn’t work. We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line.”
Asked about his children’s reaction he said: “I think like all kids, they always assumed that if I said I’d do this, I’d do it.”
Prof Melton said the stem cell-derived beta cells are presently undergoing trials in animal models, including non-human primates, where they are still producing insulin after several months,.
The team at Harvard used embryonic stem cells to produce human insulin-producing cells equivalent in almost every way to normally functioning cells.
The Telegraph quoted Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University College London Chris Mason as saying the discovery was “potentially a major medical breakthrough”.
“If this scalable technology is proven to work in both the clinic and in the manufacturing facility, the impact on
the treatment of diabetes will be a medical game-changer on a par with antibiotics and bacterial infections,” he said.
Head of Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool, Prof Anthony Hollander, added: “This is very exciting fundamental research that solves a major roadblock in the development of a stem cell treatment
“The study provides a very elegant and convincing method for generating functional insulin-producing cells in large numbers.”
Prof Mark Dunne of Manchester University said: “Overall this is an important advance for the field of diabetes and people with Type 1 diabetes.”
Prof Elaine Fuchs of Rockefeller University described the findings as “one of the most important advances to date in the stem cell field”, adding: “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.”
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.
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.