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Stem cells could offer a future free from insulin injections

16 January 2012

By Ayesha Jadoon

Appeared in BioNews 640

'Re-training' immune cells in people with type 1 diabetes reduces the amount of insulin they need to inject, according to a results from a small clinical trial.

The team, led by Dr Yong Zhao of the University of Illinois, USA, used stem cells from the cord blood of healthy donors to 're-educate' patients' faulty immune cells.

'They wake them up and correct their function. The stems cells are like a teacher. The [immune] cells are like a bad student', Dr Zhao explained to the Toronto Star. 'The patients couldn't make any insulin before the treatment. But after the treatment they began to make their own insulin'.

Type 1 diabetes is caused by the patient's own immune system attacking cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. The resulting decrease in insulin production affects the regulation of sugar levels in the blood and may cause organ damage and premature death. Patients must inject insulin on a daily basis to balance their blood glucose level.

The team recruited 15 people with type 1 diabetes from the Jinan Central Hospital in China, with 12 receiving the treatment and the other three making up a control group. The treatment, known as Stem Cell Educator therapy, passes a patient's immune cells over stem cells from a healthy donor for three hours, before putting them back into the patient's bloodstream.

All the patients who received the therapy had higher levels of c-peptide, a by-product of insulin production, 12 weeks after treatment, indicating improved pancreatic cell function. Levels had increased again by 24 weeks, and this increase was maintained at 40 weeks post-treatment.

At the start of the study, six subjects were assessed as having severe diabetes, producing almost no insulin, and six who produced more, but still insufficient amounts of insulin as having moderate diabetes. The results, published in the journal BMC Medicine, showed that the required insulin dose decreased by an average of 38 percent in those with moderate diabetes and 25 percent in those with severe diabetes.

Dr Zhao and his group intend to conduct further trials, with subjects receiving more than one treatment, with the ultimate hope of a future where patients no longer require insulin injections. They are also expanding this research to other autoimmune disorders, and are beginning a clinical trial in people with type 2 diabetes, where the pancreas does produce enough insulin, but liver cells stop responding properly.


03 March 2014 - by Dr Naqash Raja 
'Mini livers' grown from mouse stem cells could reduce the need for laboratory testing on animals, thanks to research from the University of Cambridge....
11 March 2013 - by Reuben Harwood 
Genetic analysis of a family predisposed to type 1 diabetes (T1D) has uncovered the first kind of T1D to be caused by a single gene mutation...
13 February 2012 - by Dr Rebecca Hill 
US researchers have received approval to test whether cord blood stem cells could be used to reverse hearing loss in children...

09 January 2012 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
Biotech company Osiris Therapeutics has this month released an optimistic update on its Phase II trial evaluating the use of adult stem cells for the treatment of type 1 diabetes, despite lacking positive results...
19 September 2011 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
A new fund to help pay for stem cell research in Scotland has been launched. The UK Stem Cell Foundation (UKSF) will aim to raise £5 million over three years to support the work of researchers and clinicians in Scotland into treatments and cures for illnesses including diabetes, strokes, multiple sclerosis, blindness and Alzheimer's disease...
27 June 2011 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
Scientists in Japan have reported the production of mice that have rat's organs. They suggest that one day this technique could be used to grow spare human organs in another species such as pigs, easing organ shortages and reducing long waiting times for transplants...
06 January 2010 - by Dr Karen Devine 
With modern day medico-scientific technology advancing at an incredible pace, it is very easy for the layperson to become caught up in the technical language used by scientists and academics in their specialist field. Often, out of a lack of expertise, even the media misrepresent information, particularly in relation to research involving stem cells...

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