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Stem Cells – The First Step Towards a Cure for Type 1 Diabetes?

by Jon Waterman Smith, November 4, 2014 at 08:00 AM | Tags

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Type 1 diabetes has recently been the focus of forward thinking research, embracing technological and scientific advances to find new and innovative treatment options. Now, stem cell research has taken the first steps toward finding a potential cure for this chronic and life-altering disease.

Type 1 is often the overlooked form of diabetes as it only affects a small proportion of the diabetic population - around 5%, although this still adds up to as many as 3 million people in the US. Type 1 diabetes is not lifestyle related, and instead occurs due to the pancreas not producing enough (if any) insulin, usually following pancreatic beta cell destruction by our own immune system. This year, type 1 has been at the forefront of ground breaking diabetes research with technological advances such as the ‘bionic pancreas’ looking to revolutionize treatment of the chronic disease. As type 1 has a defined cause there is a potential for the disease to be cured if the destroyed beta cells can be replaced. A new study has taken the first gigantic step towards this cure by making insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells for the first time, with the work recently published in the journal Cell.

The research team started with human pluripotent stem cells which have the potential to be an excellent tool in the field of regenerative medicine. Stem cells give rise to every other cell type in the body, and so could be used to generate replacement cells or tissues for a wide variety of diseases. In type 1 diabetes, it is likely that only beta cells need to be regenerated and then transplanted into patients. In this study, following the trial of various different experimental techniques, stem cells were made to differentiate into functioning cells with the genetic characteristics of pancreatic beta cells. An important first test of these cells in vitro was how they responded to glucose, and the cells were found to release quantities of insulin comparable to adult beta cells following multiple sequential glucose challenges. The cells were then transplanted into mice and were found to secrete human insulin in a glucose-regulated manner, as well as improving the hyperglycemia of diabetic mice.

This research is highly promising as the beta cells were generated in the kind of large quantities needed for cell transplantation and diabetes treatment, and were shown to have a similar structure and function to “normal” human pancreatic beta cells. However, this method is at a very early stage of research, with studies only carried out in a small number of mice. There are still many questions to answer, including the important topic of whether the transplanted cells would be targeted by the human immune system. The beta cells are currently being trialed in other animal models, including non-human primates (NHPs), and it remains to be seen whether it is possible to later perform human trials in type 1 diabetes patients.

Crown Bioscience is pleased to see a potential cure for type 1 diabetes being developed, even at this early stage of research, and look forward to further developments with these newly generated cells. Crown Bioscience support research into diabetes through the use of our clinically relevant in vitro and in vivo models available for translational sciences and drug discovery, including the world’s largest collection of well characterized naturally diabetic non-human primate models. Contact us at busdev@crownbio.com to discover how we can transform your type 1 and type 2 diabetes research today.


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