American scientists believe that a cure for diabetes could be on the way after they discovered a link between stem cells and their ability to ‘re-educate’ the immune system of Type 1 diabetes sufferers.
Researchers from the University of Illinois in Chicago claim that stem cells can ‘kick-start’ the pancreas, reducing the need for daily insulin jabs.
The results from the small study of 15 participants, published in the journal BMC Medicine, also claims that the ‘re-educated’ stem cells could teach the diabetics' immune T-cells to counteract mutant or damaged pancreatic cells, which is what causes diabetes in first instance.
"Although the research involved only 15 participants and is still at a relatively early stage, it is innovative and appeared to offer improvements in the control of blood glucose, even in those with longstanding Type 1 diabetes," says Richard Elliott, research communications officer at Diabetes UK.
"We will be interested to see the results of further studies with larger numbers of participants so that the value of this approach for people with diabetes can be determined."
Type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes, is commonly thought to be caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger, which causes the immune system to target and kill off its own insulin producing cells, according to Diabetes UK. Around 15% of people with Type 1 diabetes treat the condition with daily insulin injections, a healthy diet and regular exercise.
This isn't the first time stem cell research has been used in a bid to find a cure for diabetes or provide treatment. For people with any form of diabetes another therapeutic use of stem cells could be to generate replacement tissue for organs damaged by the complications of diabetes. For example stem cell-derived retinal cells could be used to improve vision in people with diabetes-related retinopathy, according to a report by the charity.
In the UK alone, 2.9 million people diagnosed with diabetes and an estimated 850,000 people who have the condition but don't know it.