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A New Discovery May Lead to New Treatment for Diabetes

While still controversial, stem cells may provide the key to treating people with type 1 diabetes. Researchers have identified stem cells in the adult pancreas that can be manipulated into cells which will produce insulin. This incredible new finding could mean that one day in the near future, people who have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes could once again regenerate their own insulin-producing cells.

The discovery was made by a resourceful team of medical researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. While it has opened a brand new doorway for diabetes treatment, this finding also provides further evidence that stem cells don’t only occur in the embryo.

Understanding Type 1 Diabetes

For those who are not familiar with this condition, the body’s ability to produce this hormone, insulin, is crucial in controlling the body’s glucose (blood sugar) levels. Living with type 1 diabetes, the patient’s immune system has actually destroyed the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. The effects are not always immediate, but eventually people can die from a fatal elevation of blood sugar.

Following their diagnosis, people with type 1 diabetes must maintain strict control over their condition. Often, this means that they will have to rely on multiple daily injections of insulin, or an insulin pump, in order to maintain healthier blood glucose levels. Unfortunately due to the severity of this condition, the patient’s control over their T1D will not be perfect, and there are risks of long-term health complications.

From Stem Cells to Insulin-Producing Cells

Professor Len Harrison and Dr. Ilia Banakh were in charge of this groundbreaking diabetes clinical research. Their team of scientists was not only able to identify and isolate the stem cells from the pancreas, but they were also able to develop an effective technique which would coax the cells into producing insulin. Indeed, following the application of this technique, these had become insulin-producing cells that would secrete the hormone in response to glucose.

According to Professor Harrison, the insulin producing cells had been previously generated from cells in the pancreas that possessed stem-cell like properties. However, Dr. Banakh was able to pinpoint the exact cell of origin for these insulin-producing cells. They found that in response to pancreas injury, there would be a greater number of cells that could turn into insulin-producing cells. This excited the research team, as it meant that all of us, even when full grown, possess the potential to regenerate insulin-producing cells lost due to type 1 diabetes.

One More Roadblock to Overcome

Following the completion of this research, these scientists are optimistic that people will soon be able to regenerate their own insulin-producing cells. The successful development of this experimental therapy would mean that patients with type 1 diabetes could produce their own insulin, giving their body control of its blood sugar levels, and curing their diabetes. Still there remains one more roadblock for these research teams to overcome. They will need to develop a way to effectively block the immune system’s attack on the cells that produce insulin.

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