Tests on mice with type 1 diabetes showed that these lab-made cells could treat the disease for several months as they produced insulin and subsequently controlled blood sugar levels.
'If this scalable technology is proven to work in both the clinic and in the manufacturing facility, the impact on the treatment of diabetes will be a medical game-changer on a par with antibiotics and bacterial infections,' commented Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, who was not involved in the study.
Overall the researchers screened about 150 different combinations of chemical growth factors, which had been previously described in playing a role in pancreatic biology. They found that combining 11 of these chemicals could transform embryonic stem cells into functioning beta cells – cells which make the insulin hormone within the pancreas.
People with type 1 diabetes, which affects about 400,000 people in Britain, lack beta cells because their own immune system destroys them.
'There have been previous reports of other labs deriving beta cell types from stem cells, [but] no other group has produced mature beta cells as suitable for use in patients,' said lead author of the study Professor Doug Melton.
He added: 'The biggest hurdle has been to get to glucose-sensing, insulin-secreting beta cells, and that's what our group has done.'
Professor Melton started the research 23 years ago after his son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. 'He hopes to have human transplantation trials using the cells under way within a few years,' reports the University of Harvard press release.
Treatment for diabetes using beta cell transplantation remains in the experimental stages. It uses cells from cadavers that are in limited supply, it requires the use of powerful immunosuppressive drugs, and is available to only a very small number of patients.
Dr Gillian Morrison at the University of Edinburgh told the BBC that this 'represents a real advance in the field'. She added: 'The next important challenge will be to find ways to maintain these cells inside the body so they are protected from the immune response and have long-term function.'
Besides offering a new form of treatment for type 1 diabetes, the scientists believe it could also offer hope for the people with type 2 diabetes who have to rely on regular insulin injections.
The research was published in the journal Cell.