Stem Cells Might Help in Type I Diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes have long cherished the hope that stem cell technology may one day cure the disease that attacked them, often in early childhood.  Now this cure has come a step nearer with the discovery of a possible therapy using cord blood stem cells.

Type 1 accounts for around 10% of all diabetes cases, and cruelly often affects quite young children or babies.  Most type 1 diabetics are diagnosed before the age of 20, and the disease is not associated with poor lifestyle or obesity.  At this stage, there is no prevention or cure for this form of the disease, although doctors are able to identify children at risk by examining family medical records.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the patient’s immune system attacks the beta cells in his pancreas, destroying his ability to manufacture insulin, the hormone needed for metabolizing sugars from the food.  Medical science still does not fully understand why this happens, but the disease affects the young patient from then on.  For the rest of his life he will need insulin therapy, and will have to watch every mouthful he eats and stay alert for high and low blood sugar crises.  Diabetes also carries the threat of serious side effects, such as heart and kidney failure, blindness, strokes and neuropathy, which can lead to gangrene and amputation.

Chinese scientists led by a professor fromChicago’sUniversityofIllinoisconducted a small-scale study into the effects of cord blood stem cells – cells from a baby’s umbilical cord – on diabetics.  The team chose 15 patients at the general hospital of the Jinan Military District in eastChinafor the experiment.  The subjects were chosen because they had type 1 diabetes and had little or no beta cell function, but were otherwise healthy.

Three of the Chinese diabetics were kept as controls who did not receive the treatment, and the others were divided into two groups of six according to how severe their diabetes was.  The scientists then took lymphocytes – white blood cells that play a vital role in the immune system – from these two groups and placed them in close proximity to the cord blood stem cells for two or three hours.  The white blood cells were then put back into the patients’ bloodstreams, and scientists found the lymphocytes appeared to have been “re-educated”.  The three controls were given a sham treatment.

The patients were then all monitored  for 40 weeks to see what effect the treatment would have.  The researchers found the treated patients showed reduced diabetic symptoms – lowered blood sugar – that lasted at least 40 weeks.  The patients with less severe diabetes did the best, but even the diabetics with severe symptoms and no beta cell function showed improvements.

The team reported that the treatment appeared to have reversed the autoimmune process, which attacks the beta cells, allowing them to regenerate – effectively curing the diabetes.  And none of the people who took part in the study reported any side effects other than soreness from needles.

The study was very small, involving only 12 subjects who actually received treatment, but it holds out great hope for type 1 diabetics in the future.

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