Updated 21 February 2017

Breakthrough development could cure type 1 diabetes

A scientific team has discovered how to successfully create insulin-producing cells and believe that their breakthrough research may eventually cure type 1 diabetes.

A team of scientists lead by Professor Douglas Melton of Harvard’s Medical School have developed a technique for converting stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells, a breakthrough that could potentially cure type 1 diabetes.

Attack on beta cells

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that currently contributes to 10% of cases of diabetes in South Africa, according to Sweet Life Mag. From this statistic, we can estimate that there are approximately 84 000 to 150 000 type 1 diabetics in South Africa.

The condition occurs when the body launches an immune attack on the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. As the beta cells are destroyed, the pancreas can no longer produce the amount of insulin required by the body. This is why type 1 diabetics need to take insulin for the rest of their lives after they develop the condition. Insulin is required to regulate the level of glucose in the blood.

Possibility of once weekly insulin shots for diabetics

Professor Melton and his team have successfully created cells that can produce insulin, detect the amount of glucose in the blood and excrete the correct amount of insulin into the bloodstream. The cells were then transplanted into diabetic mice where they functioned normally, maintaining the blood glucose levels of the mice for the duration of the six month experiment, CBS News states.

This result has taken 15 years to achieve and could mark the end of insulin injections and pumps for type 1 diabetics; however human trials are still some years away.

Because the body continues to attack the beta cells in type 1 diabetics, simply placing new beta cells in the pancreas will not solve the problem. After time, these new cells will be destroyed too. Because of this, Melton and his team are working on ways of ‘hiding’ the cells from the immune system through the use of a protective shell that they have created, an NPR article states.

Other research teams are working on a way to stop the autoimmune attack on the pancreas through gene manipulation. If such a discovery is made, it could provide an alternative solution to the ‘shell’ that Prof. Melton has developed.

While it may be a good few years before this method of treatment is available, it is amazing to think that a cure for type 1 diabetes is finally on the horizon.

Read more:

New model predicts complications in type 1 diabetics
New diagnostic test for type 1 diabetes
Progress made on bionic pancreas for diabetics


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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