Breakthrough Study Could Transform the Future for Type 1 Diabetics

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the body destroys its own insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Type 1 diabetes typically occurs before the age of 40 and is the most common form of diabetes in young children. There is currently no treatment available to replace the destroyed beta cells, and affected individuals are left dependent on lifelong insulin injections. However, new research has yielded positive results for the potential development of insulin-producing beta cells from human pluripotent stem cells.

Insulin is a peptide hormone that plays an important role in regulating glucose levels in the bloodstream. Patients with type 1 diabetes fail to produce enough insulin leaving them reliant on an external source for survival. Professor Doug Melton, lead researcher of the study at Harvard University, considered whether human pluripotent stem cells could be instructed to develop into active insulin-producing beta pancreatic cells under the influence of signalling pathways. The study, published in the scientific journal Cell, was carried out on mice with suppressed immune systems and mice genetically engineered to develop a disorder similar to type 1 diabetes. Human pluripotent stem cells were cultured under controlled laboratory conditions to differentiate into specialised cells, which are structurally and functionally similar to normal adult pancreatic cells, and release insulin in response to fluctuating blood glucose levels. The cells were then transplanted into both groups of live mice. Results showed that 75% of the stem cell-derived pancreatic beta cells responded to high glucose challenges, and the mice secreted insulin successfully into the bloodstream within two weeks. The “diabetic” mice also showed a positive response as the stem cell-derived pancreatic cells controlled the blood glucose levels by releasing adequate quantities of insulin into the bloodstream.

Image source: Diabetes: Type 1 Diabetes v/s Type 2 Diabetes- 14th February 2014, Health

Image source: Diabetes: Type 1 Diabetes v/s Type 2 Diabetes- 14th February 2014, Health

Similar studies have been carried out previously by leading scientists worldwide, but the results of the studies have not generated sufficient quantities of insulin that would show any major impact in treating the disorder in the long-term. Professor Melton has confirmed that the mice used in their study continue to secrete insulin several months after being injected with the stem cell-derived pancreatic beta cells. 

This breakthrough in medical research could potentially mark the end of lifelong insulin injections for several thousand sufferers of type 1 diabetes, and possibly lead to further treatment prospects for type 2 diabetes. Although the research is currently at an early stage, researchers remain confident to bring about a promising transformation in the way diabetic patients are treated in the future.




Original Study: Felicia W. Pagliuca, Jeffrey R. Millman, Mads Gürtler et al, (2014), Generation of Functional Human Pancreatic β Cells In Vitro. Cell, 2(159), p.428-439 DOI:

Related Stories:“Is a cure for type 1 diabetes ‘within reach’?” –NHS Choices, 10th October 2014

“Type 1 diabetes cure within reach after breakthrough that could spell end of insulin injections for millions”- The Independent, 9th October 2014

Feature Image Source: “Injectable Nanoparticles Controls Blood Sugar In Diabetes For Days?”- 5th May 2014

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