Diabetes and Stem Cells: A Story Of Hope
For many people, diabetes can be controlled with diet, exercise and, often, insulin or other drugs. However, complications from diabetes can be serious and include kidney failure, nerve damage, vision loss, heart disease and a host of other health issues.
Type 1 diabetes patients are given insulin to help process sugar. However, they often have either high blood sugar or high insulin levels. They struggle to maintain the optimal balance found in healthy bodies and need to monitor their blood sugar several times a day. The advent of the insulin pump has greatly improved treatment for some people.
Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled with diet and exercise. However, many people with type 2 diabetes eventually have to take insulin injections to control blood sugar levels and/or other medications to deal with complications from the disease.
Developing and testing a truly effective stem-cell based treatment for diabetes will take years. Researchers are looking at ways to restore the number of functional beta cells in patients with diabetes, pursuing both the replacement of lost beta cells and the protection of beta cells from further damage.
The first part of this is to generate – or regenerate – cells that sense glucose and produce insulin that might ultimately be used to replace the beta cells lost as both type 1 and 2 diabetes progresses. Several different approaches are being used, including:
Making beta cells from embryonic stem cells or iPS cells. Embryonic stem cells and iPS cells can be grown in large numbers in the laboratory and have the potential to be coaxed into becoming any cell type in the body, including glucose sensing, insulin-producing beta cells. Recent leaps forward in these technologies make this a very promising avenue for generating large numbers of replacement beta cells.
Stimulating beta cells to make many more copies of themselves. Beta cells can do this in the pancreas, but usually very slowly, and less and less as we get older. Researchers are looking for drugs that might enhance this self-renewal as a possible treatment for people with type 2 or early-stage type 1 diabetes.
Key to these approaches is getting beta cells into a place in the body where they can work and protecting them from what was damaging them in the first place.
In summary, there is great news in the stem cell arena; insulin-producing cells can be made in unlimited numbers. While not yet ready for clinical use in people with diabetes, rapid progress is being made.