Harvard scientists are closer than ever to curing type 1 diabetes

10 Oct 2014

Image via Jose Angel Astor Rocha/Shutterstock

A team of researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have made a giant leap towards establishing effective treatment for type 1 diabetes.

The team of stem cell researchers led by Dr Doug Melton have produced, for the first time, human insulin-producing beta cells on the massive scale necessary for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes.

The scientists claim these stem cell-derived beta cells behave almost indentically to normally functioning human pancreatic beta cells. Animal trials of implantation are already under way, including testing on non-human primates, and Melton hopes to begin human trials within a few years.

“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line,” he said.

“You never know for sure that something like this is going to work until you’ve tested it numerous ways,” Melton added.

“We’ve given these cells three separate challenges with glucose in mice and they’ve responded appropriately; that was really exciting.”

No more insulin injections

Diabetes Ireland estimates there are about 14,000 people with type 1 diabetes in Ireland, while in the US this figure has been estimated as high as 3m.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the body kills off all of the pancreatic beta cells that produce the insulin needed for glucose regulation in the body. Currently, those afflicted with this chronic disease keep their glucose metabolism in check by injecting insulin multiple times a day, but a lack of fine tuning of this method can have devastating consequences, such as blindness or loss of limbs.

For the stem cell treatment to be successful, about 150m cells need to be transplanted into each patient and these cells must also be protected from the immune system.

Melton’s team is now collaborating on the development of an implantation device to protect the cells and the device currently in testing has so far protected beta cells implanted in mice for many months.

A report on this work, co-authored by Melton, Felicia W Pagliuca, Jeff Millman and Mads Gurtler, has been published in the journal Cell.

Insulin injection image by Jose Angel Astor Rocha via Shutterstock

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.