A groundbreaking attempt to "cure" Type 1 diabetes with stem cells began last week. Embryonic stem cell implants were given to two people, one in the US and one in Canada, with high-risk Type 1 diabetes. The researchers hope that this will help the patients manage the condition.
The stem cells, developed by private company ViaCyte, are implanted underneath the patient's forearm, where they take about three months to mature into islet cells. In the pancreas, these cells are responsible for the production of insulin. In people with Type 1 diabetes, these cells are attacked by the body’s own immune system.
“If it works, we would call it a functional cure,” Paul Laikind of Viacyte told New Scientist. “It’s not truly a cure because we wouldn’t address the autoimmune cause of the disease, but we would be replacing the missing cells.”
A smaller implant has already been trialled on 19 people for safety and the company expects to extend the trial to 40 more people later this year, in order to understand both the safety and efficacy of the full-size implant. ViaCyte would like to get preliminary results during the first half of 2018 and to know if the system works between six and 12 months later.
“Islet transplants have been used to successfully treat patients with unstable, high-risk Type 1 diabetes, but the procedure has limitations, including a very limited supply of donor organs and challenges in obtaining reliable and consistent islet preparations,” trial investigator James Shapiro, from the University of Alberta, said in a statement. “An effective stem cell-derived islet replacement therapy would solve these issues and has the potential to help a greater number of people.”
If a success, the implant will improve the lives of the patients as they won’t have to closely monitor their blood levels or inject insulin, but there is a trade-off. They will have to take immunosuppressive drugs, so that their bodies don’t attack the newly implanted cells. This is why the procedure is targeted at people who are at a higher risk.
Researchers estimate that 140,000 people in Canada and the US are currently suffering from high-risk Type 1 diabetes. The condition can lead to severe episodes of hypoglycemia in the short term and heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease (among others) in the long term.
[H/T: New Scientist]