New Stem Cell Treatment, Successful in Mice, May Someday …

Posted: October 12, 2014 at 3:44 am

When his infant son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two decades ago, Doug Melton made himself a promise: He would cure it. When his daughter Emma was diagnosed with the same autoimmune disease at 14, he redoubled his efforts.

Finally he can see the finish line. In a paper published Thursday in the journal Cell, Melton announces that he has created a virtually unlimited supply of the cells that are missing in people with type 1 diabetes.

By replacing these cellsand then protecting them from attack by the body's immune systemMelton, now a professor and stem cell researcher at Harvard, says someday he'll have his cure.

"I think we've shown the problem can be solved," he said.

In type 1 diabetes, which usually starts in childhood and affects as many as three million Americans, the person's immune system attacks and destroys beta cells in the pancreas. Melton used stem cellswhich can turn into a wide variety of other cell typesto manufacture a new supply of these beta cells, which provide exquisitely fine-tuned responses to sugar levels in the blood.

When you eat, beta cells increase levels of insulin in your blood to process the extra sugar; when you're running on empty, the cells dial down insulin levels.

Since the 1920s, people with type 1 diabetes have been kept alive with insulin injections, though many still face nerve damage, slow wound healing, and even blindness because even the best pumps and monitors are not as effective as the body's beta cells.

The only known cure for type 1 diabetes is a beta cell transplant, which takes the cells from someone who has recently died. But the procedure is complicated, and the patient must remain on drugs forever to prevent the immune system from destroying the cells.

Fewer than 1,000 beta cell transplants have ever been done, said Albert Hwa, senior scientific program manager for beta cell therapies at the diabetes research organization JDRF, which has helped fund Melton's work for more than a decade.

Hope From Stem Cells

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New Stem Cell Treatment, Successful in Mice, May Someday ...

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