Type 1 diabetes, sometimes referred to as juvenile diabetes, represents about 5-10% of all cases of diabetes, and is most often diagnosed in children. The other distinguishing feature of Type 1 is that its sufferers require insulin injections; their immune system destroys the insulin producing islet cells in the pancreas, leaving them no other option – until now. Recent research suggests that stem cell therapy may restore insulin production in Type 1 patients, and while the mechanism of disease is different in those with Type 2 diabetes, this treatment could suggest other treatment pathways for patients with insulin resistance.
Stem Cell Strategies
Stem cell therapies are of great interest to medical researchers because of their extraordinary potential to make repairs at the most fundamental levels of the bodies. In fact, stem cells are already being used to help treat some joint injuries and in certain types of cancer. One of the major barriers to stem cell research, however, is that the most versatile stem cells are derived from embryos – but researchers have found that they don’t need totally undifferentiated stem cells to treat diabetes. Instead, it’s possible to use partially differentiated dental stem cells known as mesenchymal stem cells.
Solving An Access Problem
As a new treatment, patients still have limited access to stem cell treatment for diabetes, but in the near future, this intervention may solve a much more significant problem: the rising cost of insulin. While most Type 2 diabetics don’t need insulin early in the course of their disease, and can instead manage it through diet changes and exercise, many will ultimately need supplemental insulin. Type 1 diabetics, of course, require insulin injections from day one to manage their condition, and recently there have been many high-profile deaths because patients couldn’t afford enough insulin.
Type 1 diabetics who begin producing insulin as the result of stem cell treatment could significantly reduce the amount of additional insulin they need, if not completely eliminate the need for it. Meanwhile, the realization that Type 1 diabetes can be treated using stem cells has alerted researchers to potential stem cell interventions for Type 2 diabetes, as Type 2 actually demonstrates stronger genetic characteristics than Type 1.
From Stem Cells To Gene Editing
Researchers have used both embryonic and mesenchymal stem cells to produce new insulin producing cells, but to tackle Type 2 diabetes, they’ll need to take that information and combine it with the gene editing tool CRISPR. Their goal is to reprogram dysfunctional cells from diabetic patients into pluripotent stem cells, then edit the genes in those stem cells to eliminate diabetes-associated mutations. This total transformation is important because, in Type 2 patients, the body produces but doesn’t respond to insulin. Though CRISPR is still too unreliable to be used for this purpose, scientists do have a clear sense of what they need to do to create a viable treatment.
Most researchers recognize that stem cell treatments, along with gene editing, are the future of healthcare, but right now their applications are still limited. For these experts, treating Type 1 diabetes with easily accessible mesenchymal stem cells is the first big step in what is sure to be a series of major breakthroughs that will change lives.