Major breakthrough in type 1 diabetes

Last week Harvard researchers announced a major breakthrough regarding type-1 diabetes treatment.

For the first time ever, scientists were able to make insulin-producing beta cells from human embryonic stem cells. Moreover, they were able to make enough in quantity needed for cell transportation and pharmaceutical use.

According to Elaine Fuchs, the Rebecca C. Lancefield Professor at Rockefeller University, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator who was not involved in the work, the findings represent one of the most important advances ever made in stem-cell research.

"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," Fuchs said. "[The researchers] have now overcome this hurdle and opened the door for drug discovery and transplantation therapy in diabetes."

Animal trials in motion

The beta cells are currently being used in animal-model trials, but according to lead study investigator Doug Melton, the hope is that human transplantation trials will begin in a few years.

"We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line," said Melton, who began his work 23 years ago when his then infant son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

"It was gratifying to know that we could do something that we always thought was possible," he said, "but many people felt it wouldn't work. If we had shown this was not possible, then I would have had to give up on this whole approach. Now I'm really energized."

The final step, Melton said, is making sure the immune system will not attack the approximately 150 million new cells that would be transplanted into a patient.

Source: Harvard University
Photo credit: Gísli Hjörleifsson

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