Could stem cells reverse diabetes?

Diabetes
Diabetes is manageable with proper care, but no cure is yet available. Some scientists believe that transforming stem cells into insulin-secreting cells might offer hope.
Woman and man in laboratory
Stem cell researchers are attempting to crack diabetes.

A new study, which features in the journal Stem Cell Reports, highlights research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. The findings could be significant in the future for those with diabetes.

In previous studies, scientists successfully transformed stem cells into insulin-producing cells called beta cells. However, they ran into problems during these earlier attempts, primarily because it was difficult to regulate how much insulin the new beta cells produced.

By tweaking the way in which they developed the cells, the team behind the current study has produced beta cells that are more responsive to glucose levels in the blood.

The researchers found that when they transplanted the new cells into mice that could not produce insulin, the cells began secreting the hormone within a few days. Better yet, they helped control the animals’ blood sugar for months.

“We’ve been able to overcome a major weakness in the way these cells previously had been developed,” says principal investigator Jeffrey R. Millman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine and biomedical engineering.

“The new insulin-producing cells react more quickly and appropriately when they encounter glucose. The cells behave much more like beta cells in people who don’t have diabetes,” he adds.

Diabetes affects millions of people

Diabetes is an incurable disease that affects many people. In type 2 diabetes, which is the most common type, the body either does not produce enough insulin or does not respond to it properly.

Although the insulin-producing pancreas can initially create more of this hormone to make up for the deficit, it cannot keep up over time.

Eventually, blood sugar levels rise, and it is no longer possible for the body to keep them within a normal, healthy range. Increased blood sugar can lead to a host of potentially serious health problems.

It is also a common condition, affecting about 30.3 million people in the United States, or 9.4 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 30.3 million people living with diabetes, the American Diabetes Association estimate that around 7.2 million have not received a diagnosis. Currently, there are approximately 1.5 million new diabetes diagnoses in the U.S. every year.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., and, without proper management, a number of complications can arise. Diabetes can affect the eyes, nerves, and skin, and people with this condition also have an increased likelihood of high blood pressure and stroke.

Diabetes symptoms include increased thirst and urination, excessive hunger, extreme fatigue, vision problems, and cuts and bruises taking a long time to heal.

Could this method work in humans?

With the incidence of diabetes continuing to rise, it is no wonder that researchers carry on working in the hope of finding a new treatment for this condition.

Millman was part of a research team that first worked on converting skin cells into stem cells in 2014 and then did something similar in 2016 with skin cells from a person with diabetes.

Both times, the team worked on turning the stem cells into insulin-secreting beta cells, but they did not work well once they began producing the hormone.

In some cases, the cells produced too much insulin, while in others, they did not produce enough. Neither of these situations is ideal for managing diabetes in people. However, in this study, the newly developed beta cells were much more reliable.

The new cells are more sensitive and secrete insulin that better corresponds to the glucose levels.”

Principal investigator Jeffrey R. Millman, Ph.D.

This research offers a new and exciting direction for diabetes researchers — could this concept produce insulin and work well in humans? Clinical trials would have to take place, but first, scientists would need to develop a way to test the cells safely in people.

If it does get to that point, Millman has plans for mass-producing the cells. He and his team can already generate more than a billion beta cells in just a few weeks.

Although there is a long path to tread, in principle, this could be a significant boost for diabetes treatment.

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