Can Type 1 diabetes be cured with stem cells?

It’s good to know that stem cell therapy holds great potential for curing patients with Type 1 diabetes. As experts in the collection and storage of umbilical cord blood, we’re fascinated by the research. Let’s take a look at the details behind this exciting discovery. 

How many people are suffering from diabetes worldwide?

According to the International Diabetes Foundation, diabetes is spiralling out of control across the world. One in ten of us is currently living with diabetes, and the number of children being diagnosed with the condition is rising fast. 

What is diabetes? 

Diabetes is a lifelong medical condition. It causes your blood sugar level to sky rocket. The two main types of the disease are Type 1, where the immune system attacks and destroys the cells that make insulin. Type 2, where the body does not produce enough insulin or cells don’t react to it, is usually down to obesity.  Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. It regulates blood sugar levels, helping the glucose from food enter the body’s cells where they’re used for energy. In this article we’re looking at Type 1 diabetes, the cause of which remains mostly a mystery. Research is still being carried out to pin down what triggers the immune system to destroy beta cells in Type 1 diabetes.

How is diabetes treated?

Balance sits at the heart of treatment for Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes management is a lifelong task. The condition doesn’t respond to lifestyle changes, medicines or medical devices. Because there’s no cure and no simple way to treat it, treatment is all about balancing the perfect amount of insulin in the body to keep a patient’s blood glucose levels from falling to low or getting too high. 

This involves being given insulin, either via an injection or by infusion via a special insulin pump. Luckily, these days, both processes are quick, discreet and often painless. But it’s a hassle for patients having to give themselves constant injections. Can stem cell therapy help? 

How are we using stem cells to understand diabetes?

The scientific community is using stem cell therapy to come to a better understanding of Type 1 diabetes. There have been several studies so far but experts say while it has promise, more research is required to prove the theory. 

What is the potential for stem cells to treat diabetes?

Autoimmunity is a big problem for people with Type 1 diabetes. Even if treatments create or provide new beta cells for a patient, their immune system will eventually target and destroy the new cells. New treatments need to also deal with this aspect of the disease, preventing new beta cells from being damaged and destroyed. So far this has involved immune suppressants, which can increase the infection risk. It’s far from ideal. 

Luckily there’s good potential to treat type 1 diabetes with stem cells in future. First, we need longer and larger trials to establish the facts properly, without any doubts.   

One patient in a recent study where people were given stem cell therapy for three months saw good results. Beforehand they were using 34 daily units of insulin to control the condition. After three months of stem cell therapy the patient used just 2.9 units of insulin daily. While they still had diabetes, their condition had ‘improved’. But this was just one person, and a trial with one positive reaction cannot prove a theory. 

This experimental treatment of Type 1 diabetes with stem cells is still in the early development stages. Vertex Pharmaceuticals were responsible for the research and they revealed the preliminary results in October 2021. As the Everyday Health website reports, “Stem cell therapies involve replacing diseased or dysfunctional cells with healthy ones. All these lab experiments eventually led to VX-880, an infusion of replacement islet cells derived from embryonic stem cells. This is not only a potential breakthrough in the treatment of type 1 diabetes, it’s also one of the first practical demonstrations that embryonic stem cells might indeed be used to make treatments that replace dysfunctional cells — in this case islet cells in the pancreas”

The answer to the all-important question, can stem cell therapy cure Type 1 diabetes, is still being researched and trialled. It’s too early to ask for the treatment, but the signs at this stage are optimistic. 

What is the clinical status of cell-based therapies for diabetes? 

Stem cell treatments for type 1 diabetes are still at an early clinical stage. The current research is looking into using pluripotent stem cells to create fresh beta cells to be transplanted into patients with Type 1 diabetes. At the moment trials are experimenting with devices and capsules designed to protect transplanted stem cell-derived precursor cells of new beta cells from the patient’s own immune system. The scientists involved are also examining the potential for special drugs to make the cells in the pancreas create more beta cells naturally. 

Come back soon to find out about the latest research and science on umbilical cord blood stem cells and other innovative types of stem cell therapy. 


No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.


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