For the vast majority of diabetics, the condition requires daily monitoring and maintenance. A lack of insulin being produced naturally by their bodies means consistent monitoring of blood sugar levels and insulin injections to ensure their bodies can carry out vital processes and keep them alert and healthy.
Now, researchers studying the condition have come up with a potential solution that could lead to a cure, even if it only appears promising in laboratory mice for now. The treatment involves the use of stem cells, which naturally convert into other cells in the body, to do the work of insulin secretion and mitigate the need for manual management of the disease.
When the treatment is performed, the stem cells are converted into beta cells, which are capable of secreting insulin. The researchers have been working on this technique for some time, but they’ve had to overcome some pretty serious hurdles along the way, including the habit of stem cells to turn into other types of cells that aren’t helpful in the treatment of the disease.
Stem cells are like blank slates that can turn into many different kinds of cells. That makes them incredibly powerful in the treatment of various diseases, but it also means they can be something of a wild card, turning into cells that the researchers weren’t anticipating. That means more and more stem cells are needed to generate the target number of beta cells.
“The more off-target cells you get, the less therapeutically relevant cells you have,” Jeffrey Millman, lead researcher, explains. “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.”
To hone their approach, the researchers have been working on a new technique that boosts the efficiency of the conversion to beta cells. Now, the team says, they know enough to be able to better predict how many cells will do what they expect, making the treatment even more effective.
In tests in laboratory mice, the rodents have been “functionally cured” of their disease, which in itself is an incredible achievement. However, whether the same results can be replicated in humans is a question that will need to be answered much later. Still, it’s an exciting development, and could be great news for diabetes sufferers.