DNA abstract

Research has taken another important step forward towards eliminating the need for daily injections and blood glucose tests as scientists have successfully found a way to grow large numbers of insulin producing cells.

Whilst other challenging steps will be required before a life without blood tests and injections is complete, the latest breakthrough is an important barrier to cross.

Large quantities of beta cells

The breakthrough comes from researchers at Harvard University in Boston, who have developed a way to grow large quantities of beta cells (the cells within the pancreas that produce insulin). The technique has been shown to work in mice and the researchers next trials will test the effects in humans.

In type 1 diabetes, problems develop which cause the immune system to target and kill off the insulin producing beta cells. This hampers the body’s ability to produce adequate amounts of insulin which leaves people with type 1 diabetes needing to take insulin either by injection or insulin pump.

Islet cell transplantation

The availability of stem cells means that treatments, such as islet cell transplants (beta cells are a form of islet cell) may be more readily available. Islet cell transplantation has been a rare procedure because, currently, the procedure involves cultivating islet cells from deceased people that have chosen to donate these cells after their death.

The difficulties of islet cell transplantation have been that donor islet cells have been rare and also that, following transplantation, the recipient of the donated cells needs to take strong drugs to suppress the immune system from attacking the new cells. The greater availability of islet cells would therefore reduce one of these problems.

Encapsulated islet cells

Conventional islet cell transplantation is not the only treatment, however, that could benefit from the new stem cell breakthrough. An advanced treatment, involving encapsulated islet cells, is currently being developed by Viacyte, a pioneering company based in San Diego which has been working together with type 1 diabetes charity, the JDRF.

The encapsulation technology, known as VC-01, relies on stem cells, which develop into islet cells when implanted under the skin of someone with type 1 diabetes. The technology aims to prevent people with type 1 diabetes needing to take injections or blood tests. Human trials of the VC-01 treatment is scheduled to be run by the University of California at San Diego.