Stem Cells and Insulin-free Diabetics

For people who suffer from type 1 diabetes, taking insulin each day is a life-saver. These injections give the sufferer insulin, helping them to keep their blood sugar within a tight, narrow range that is necessary to sustain their health and life. The idea of being able to live without insulin injections is like a dream but until now, not one with a lot of hope.

What is Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes happens when a person’s pancreas no longer makes insulin. The person’s immune system attacks the pancreas – specifically the cells responsible for making insulin. Insulin is a vital hormone that you need to convert glucose from the foods you eat into energy needed to live.

Becoming Insulin-Free

Researchers recently were able to free patients with type 1 diabetes from taking insulin on a daily basis. The results lasted as long as four years in some patients. This was all made possible through the use of the patient’s own stem cells, which were transplanted into their body.

Newly Diagnosed Diabetes

In a slightly older study, researchers had found that patients who had newly been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and received stem cell transplantation were able to become insulin-free for approximately a year and a half. The study was thought to work because it was still early on in the diagnosis, meaning that the person’s immune system likely had not yet destroyed all of the cells important for producing insulin in the body.

But some criticised the study because the patients had also participated in a number of lifestyle changes such as a better diet and exercise programme. Some critics thought that becoming insulin-free might have related more to these changes than the stem cells.

How it Works

In this recent study, researchers removed stem cells from the patient’s blood. These were then treated and re-injected into the patient. To make sure any improvements really were due to the stem cells rather than lifestyle changes, the researchers looked at levels of an important protein in patients. This particular protein is an indirect way of looking at how cells important in insulin regulation work in the body.

While results did vary, results were positive and lasted up to four years for some patients. Since the stem cells were from the patient’s own body, there was no risk of immunological rejection either, which is a real concern with other therapies.

The Future of Type 1 Diabetes

One challenge, however, is that the study was on a relatively small group of patients. It would be important to look at how a larger group was affected as well as what kinds of side-effects might occur. Still, although the group was small, it does suggest hope for patients who suffer from type 1 diabetes. The next step will also be to find ways to make it cost-effective as currently, the cost for such a therapy if it did become mainstream would be enormously out-of-reach for the average person who has type 1 diabetes. Perhaps one day, we will have an effective way to use stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes so they can live a life free from insulin injections and constant monitoring of the condition.

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