Stem cell research may be controversial but it’s showing incredible promise in treating a number of long-incurable diseases. The latest target for scientists working with stem cells is type 1 diabetes, and a new study reveals that it’s possible to convert stem cells into cells capable of producing insulin, potentially opening the door to a cure.

The goal which the scientists are rapidly working towards is to be able to replace insulin-producing cells in individuals who have type 1 diabetes. In diabetes patients those cells are often destroyed when the person is young, requiring that they monitor their blood sugar levels and take insulin to manage the disease.

However, if scientists can reliably create stand-in cells that perform the same work as the cells that were previously destroyed it could revolutionize type 1 diabetes treatment and potentially even result in a cure for the disease.

“We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies,” senior author Matthias Hebrok of the University of California San Francisco said in a statement. “This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes.”

Stem cells are incredibly versatile thanks to their ability to be converted into other types of human cells. They are like a blank slate that can take on various forms and functions, which is hugely beneficial for researchers that are tackling human diseases.

Previous research that aimed to turn stem cells into insulin-producing cells suffered setbacks when the cells failed to reach maturity. “The cells we and others were producing were getting stuck at an immature stage where they weren’t able to respond adequately to blood glucose and secrete insulin properly,” Hebrok explained.

Using a new technique, the team was able to develop mature cells capable of responding to blood sugar in the same way as the cells in people who don’t have type 1 diabetes. The research is still ongoing, but this is definitely big news.

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