The most common types of diabetes are type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, that is usually diagnosed in children and adolescents, and type 2 diabetes, or adult-onset diabetes, typically diagnosed in adults with certain risk factors, such as obesity. Type 2 diabetes is on the rise in the United States, with more and more children being diagnosed with the disease.
Type 1 is an autoimmune disease where cells from the body attack the beta cells in the pancreas responsible for the production of insulin. Most type 1 diabetics must take daily insulin injections to control their blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetes, the body may produce insulin but the response of the body to insulin is defective. Both types usually result in the increase of glucose in the bloodstream, leading to various symptoms, risks and medical complications.
Curing Diabetes with Stem Cells
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells capable of developing into specific types of cells in the body. They can be taken from the blood or other body tissues of a person, or they can come from a human embryo of about four or five days old. These stem cells can be cultured in the laboratory and allowed to divide or multiply.
Several studies have been performed on the effects of stem cell treatment in diabetes. In 2003, researchers were able to cure diabetes in laboratory mice using stem cells taken from the bone marrow. These stem cells, which were introduced into the blood of mice, were said to affect the growth of cells in the pancreas. The symptoms of diabetes were reversed after two weeks.
In 2007, a similar study was published involving 23 type 1 diabetic patients who were given stem cell treatment. The study, headed by Dr. Julio Voltarelli from the University of Sao Paolo, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
In the said study, the participants were administered drugs to stimulate the production of stem cells in the blood. These stem cells were collected and frozen. The patients then underwent radiation to suppress or eliminate the circulating immune cells that attack the beta cells. After the treatment, the stem cells were reintroduced into their bloodstream. The researchers were attempting to replace the immune cells with new cells that are not capable of attacking the beta cells of the pancreas.
Researchers were then able to measure the activity in the pancreas by the amount of C-peptide, a protein produced by the beta cells, in the patients’ blood. Results from the study showed that 20 of the participants had increased levels of C-peptide in their blood, indicating that the cells in the pancreas were able to grow and might be capable of insulin production.
Twelve of the study participants were able to be taken off of insulin treatment for three years, and eight only required intermittent insulin administration during the five-year study.
Implications of the Study
Dr. Voltarelli’s team made a significant finding that stem cells can indeed give pancreatic beta cells a chance to grow, which in their study, lasted for about three years. Because of this, patients, especially type 1 diabetic patients may have a life-changing alternative in the treatment of their condition in the future.
Additional studies may still be done in relation to curing diabetes with stem cells administration. For one, the use of radiation or toxic drugs can have deleterious effects on patients, and the timing of treatment may also matter. But experts consider this trial as a great contribution to the field of stem cell treatment and one that will help move this type of studies forward.
Genome News Network: Stem Cells Reverse Diabetes in Mice
TIME: Study: Stem Cells May Reverse Type 1 Diabetes
Medical News Today: What are Stem Cells?