In a new stem cell study, a cure for type 1 diabetes looks very close

In a new stem cell study, a cure for type 1 diabetes looks very close

An estimated 10 percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with diabetes, a number that is likely to rise in the near future. Oddly enough, the reason for this may have something to do with the epidemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have found a link between contracting COVID-19 and an increased risk of receiving a diabetes diagnosis months later — especially in children, as one study showed that COVID-19 receptors can reduce insulin levels and kill beta cells in the pancreas.

While there is still much to learn about the relationship between COVID-19 and diabetes, a potential wave of diabetes infections comes at an unprecedented time for the disease — perhaps when a cure is on the horizon.

Yes it is not a cure however medicine. Long considered the holy grail of medicine, diabetes is one of the most expensive, underutilized, and prevalent chronic diseases — and it’s slowly making its way toward a cure, so much so that researchers actually use the word openly.

“There’s a lot of exciting research focused on treating type 1 diabetes,” Dr. Marlon Bragnell, vice president of research and science for the American Diabetes Association, told Salon.

In November 2021, news broke that Brian Shelton, a 64-year-old man in Ohio, might be the first person ever to recover from type 1 diabetes. Shelton was part of a clinical trial by Vertex Pharmaceuticals in which participants individually receive an injection of stem cells that, in turn, create insulin-producing pancreatic cells that are lacking in the body with type 1 diabetes. In total, the study will take five years and will only include 17 people with severe cases of type 1 diabetes.

In order to maintain safe levels of glucose in the blood, beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin. These cells are known as islet cells. However, when a person has type 1 diabetes, the beta cells are destroyed by their own immune system. In contrast, people with type 1 diabetes must monitor their insulin levels, injecting themselves with insulin as needed to digest glucose.

Related: The Science of Sugar Substitutes

Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ treatment works by replacing the insulin-producing cells that have been destroyed with stem cells that turn into insulin-secreting islet cells.

There are still many unknowns in the trial, such as whether there are adverse effects, and whether the treatment lasts a lifetime or needs to be repeated. The trial is also testing the dose and the way the treatment is administered.

“We are evaluating multiple approaches to deliver insulin-producing cells, including a transplant approach that requires immunosuppression (VX-880 programme), and a device approach that aims to protect transplanted cells from the immune system,” a Vertex Pharmaceuticals spokesperson tells Salon. Nichols said they hope to apply for an experimental new drug. “Both approaches use our proprietary, fully differentiated, insulin-producing islet cells,” she continues.

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Shelton’s initial results shocked diabetes researchers. “It’s an amazing result,” Dr. Peter Butler, a diabetes expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times in November. “Being able to reverse diabetes by putting lost cells back into the body was like a miracle when insulin was first available 100 years ago.”

The past century was certainly a hope for diabetics, as evidence suggests that one type of diabetes mellitus — which refers to the three types (type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes) — existed in the 16th century, when the first symptoms of diabetes were documented. An Egyptian physician named Hesi-Re wrote about a mysterious disease involving frequent urination and leading to emaciation. From typhoid to scurvy, many diseases of that time period now had a cure — but not diabetes. While diabetes can be treated and controlled, and some people may go into remission, there is currently no cure. But thanks to this new treatment using stem cells that produce insulin, a new treatment could be possible within the next decade.

However, there are still some quirks that need to be discovered before stem cell therapy becomes more affordable. And just because positive results were reported in one of the trial participants, Nichols said, the dosing and method of administering the treatment will differ in the next 15 participants.

“It’s hard to say how close we’ll get to a cure, but beta cell therapy approaches are definitely very exciting,” Pragnell said, adding that previously, islet transplants from deceased donors have been shown to achieve “insulin independence.” However, there is a major drawback to finding available deceased donors to meet this demand — stem cell therapy could solve the problem. “The possibility of mass production of insulin-producing cells in the laboratory could solve this problem,” Pragnell noted.

If researchers are able to demonstrate that these stem cell approaches are safe and lead to long-term insulin independence, Pragnell said, it would be “transformative.”

“Immunosuppressive therapy will still be needed, but it is conceivable that future gene-editing approaches might enable researchers to turn off genes that may cause rejection and/or introduce genes that enhance the body’s acceptance of transplanted cells,” Pragnell said.

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