Stem cell treatment of diabetics looks promising

A combination of stem cells derived from patients’ blood and immunosuppression to eliminate a faulty immune system can help keep newly diagnosed diabetics off insulin, according to a preliminary study.

In the study, carried out by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, and Northwestern University, in Chicago, patients newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (3% of all new diabetes cases) had stem cells harvested from their blood. They then underwent a form of chemotherapy to get rid of islet-killing immune cells. Following an injection of their own purified stem cells, they were monitored for insulin dependence and beta-cell function.

Thirteen of the fifteen patients given the treatment were able to stop taking insulin for a period ranging from nine months to three years. “These patients have been free of any medication after the procedure,” says Richard Burt, an immunologist at Northwestern University and an author of the study. It seems to be able to be done without side effects.

This type of treatment would only be effective in newly diagnosed diabetics, who still have some beta-cell function left to preserve. For patients with more-advanced forms of the disease, scientists are working on cell transplants to replace lost islet cells, using cells from donor organs and, eventually, from embryonic stem cells.

150 million people have diabetes worldwide. Diabetes engenders $137 billion in health care costs each year in the US alone and causes 187,000 deaths (in the US).
About 7 million new cases each year (200,000+ type 1).