Researchers have used injections of patients' own stem cells to reverse the course of type 1 diabetes, reports a research team from the University of São Paulo in Brazil and Northwestern University in Chicago.
The findings, published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, exemplify the remarkable gains made by diabetes researchers, who are battling a continuously spreading disease that now affects nearly 8% of adults and children.
Dr. Julio Voltarelli from the University of São Paulo is the leader of the research team, which is the first to discover the advantages of adult stem cells in the treatment of Type 1 Diabetes successfully. The group’s initial accomplishment was reported in 2007, with as many as fifteen patients with Type 1 Diabetes receiving injections of their own stem cells. These patients no longer required insulin in order to control blood sugar.
A follow-up to their previous work, Voltarelli’s team reported the same success with eight more patients, confirming that the majority of the stem cell transplants led to a considerable repopulation of insulin-producing beta cells, which are found in the pancreas.
One of the co-authors from Northwestern University Dr. Richard Burt says, “I wouldn’t use the word cure, but it appears we changed the natural history of the disease. It’s the first therapy for patients that leaves them treatment-free — no insulin, no immune suppression for almost five years.”
The idea using the advantages of adult stem cells to treat these patients is simple. In type I diabetes, a patient’s immune system attacks the beta cells that are responsible for the production of insulin, which is hormone that breaks down the glucose in food. Sooner or later, the immune cells will essentially eliminate all of the beta cells in the body and glucose levels will begin to increase. Researchers think the trigger for this is somewhere within the immune cells. Therefore, one possible treatment for the disease may be get rid of entire existing immune system, replacing it with a new one that comes from stem cells that do not have this destructive trait.
This is the strategy tested by Voltarelli’s team. They began by carefully extracted stem cells from the bone marrow of the diabetes patients. Then each patient was given radiation treatments, similar to the treatment given to cancer patients, to destroy the immune system. Next, each patient was injected with his or her own stem cells.
The blood levels of C-peptide, which is a protein produced by beta cells, were traced for confirmation that the patient’s remaining beta cells were able to begin growing again, repopulation the pancreas and producing insulin.
More researchers are studying the advantages of adult stem cells, including stem cells grown from skin, which would eliminate the need to harvest cells from bone marrow. Dr. Burk says, “Every door that we open leads to another door. All research is built by sitting on the shoulders of other studies. This trial is something that will contribute to and move the field of stem cell therapy forward.”