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Stem Cell Breakthrough Could Put an End to Daily Insulin Injections for Diabetics

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People with type 1 diabetes have to inject insulin daily, and it often results in pain, redness, swelling, and itching at the injection site. But this could soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new breakthrough that takes us one step closer to a functional cure for type 1 diabetes.

Researchers at MIT and Harvard have used insulin-producing cells to restore insulin function in mice for an extended period. Back in 2014, the same group used stem cells to create insulin-producing beta cells in large quantities. Now, they’ve taken those mass-produced cells and transplanted them into mice, effectively switching off the disease for six months, without provoking an immune response. The details can now be found in the science journal Nature.


People with type 1 diabetes have a pancreas that’s unable to produce insulin, a critical hormone that helps the body control glucose levels in the blood. Without insulin, this sugar builds up in the bloodstream instead of being channeled for energy. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes isn’t known, but scientists think it has something to do with the body’s immune system and the way it attacks cells that make insulin. (Type 1 diabetes is not caused by eating too much sugar.)

To create an effective therapy that doesn’t rely on a steady stream of insulin injections, researchers at MIT, Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital, and several other institutions, designed a material that encapsulated human pancreatic cells prior to transplant. Embryonic stem cells were used to generate the human insulin-producing cells, which were virtually identical to normal cells. After transplantation in mice, the cells began to produce insulin in response to blood glucose levels. This effectively cured the mice of their type 1 diabetes for a period of 174 days. In human terms, that’s equivalent to several years.


Study co-author Daniel Anderson was quoted in MIT News as saying this approach “has the potential to provide diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs.” Human trials could start just a few years from now. If this process can be proven effective in humans, patients would need a transfusion every few years, rather than a daily insulin injection.


Top image: Arturo J. Vegas et al., 2016

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