Diabetes breakthrough: Revolutionary stem cell technique treated ‘severe’ disease in study

Type 2 diabetes can be a 'devastating diagnosis' says expert

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The new technique, which was developed at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, was shown to convert human stem cells into cells producing insulin. The natural hormone is produced in the pancreas and allows the body to use glucose (sugar) from food for energy. People who suffer from diabetes struggle to produce enough insulin, which leads to a build-up of sugar in the bloodstream.

The St Louis researchers, however, believe their new technique can be used to effectively control blood sugar levels using converted stem cells.

The technique has so far been successfully tested on mice injected with the converted cells.

According to a report that is due to be published on February 24 in the online edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology, the mice were “functionally cured” for nine months.

Dr Jeffrey R. Millman, the principal investigator and assistant professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering, said: “These mice had very severe diabetes with blood sugar readings of more than 500 milligrams per deciliter of blood — levels that could be fatal for a person — and when we gave the mice the insulin-secreting cells, within two weeks their blood glucose levels had returned to normal and stayed that way for many months.”

The same team of researchers has previously discovered how to convert human stem cells into so-called pancreatic beta cells to make insulin.

When these cells are injected into the bloodstream, they secret the much-needed hormone.

However, the technique was found to have its limitations and was not proven to effectively control the disease in mice.

Their new research has now proven to be much more efficient and effective.

Embryonic stem cells are a type of cell that can be instructed to develop into all sorts of specialised cells.

These can range from simple tissue and muscle cells, to even brain cells.

Scientists worldwide believe stem cell research could unlock many new therapies for ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease and HIV.

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Dr Millman said: “A common problem when you’re trying to transform a human stem cell into an insulin-producing beta cell — or a neuron or a heart cell —is that you also produce other cells that you don’t want.”

“In the case of beta cells, we might get other types of pancreas cells or liver cells.”

Pancreas and liver cells do not cause any harm when injected into mice but they do not fight the disease either.

Dr Millman added: “The more off-target cells you get, the less therapeutically relevant cells you have.

“You need about a billion beta cells to cure a person of diabetes.

“But if a quarter of the cells you make are actually liver cells or other pancreas cells, instead of needing a billion cells, you’ll need 1.25 billion cells.

“It makes curing the disease 25 percent more difficult.”

With their new technique, the researchers found fewer off-target cells were produced and the beta cells that were created had improved.

The technique specifically targets the cell’s so-called internal scaffolding or cytoskeleton.

The cytoskeleton is what gives cells their shape and allows them to interact with their environment.

Dr Millman said: “It’s a completely different approach, fundamentally different in the way we go about it.

“Previously, we would identify various proteins and factors and sprinkle them on the cells to see what would happen.

“As we have better understood the signals, we’ve been able to make that process less random.”

Although the study’s results are promising, the expert added there is a long way to go before the technique can be developed into a treatment for humans.

The converted cells will need to be tested over longer periods of time and in bigger animals.

According to Diabetes UK, some 5.5 million people are estimated to have diabetes in the UK by 2030.

Right now, more than 4.9 million people are affected by the disease and 13.6 million people are at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

About 90 percent of people with the disease have type 2 diabetes, and only about eight percent have type 1 diabetes.

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