A giant step forward has been taken in the hunt for a cure for type 1 diabetes, researchers have announced.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune system destroying the cells that control blood sugar levels.
A team at Harvard University used stem cells to produce hundreds of millions of the cells in the laboratory.
Tests on mice showed the cells could treat the disease, which experts described as “potentially a major medical breakthrough”.
Beta cells in the pancreas pump out insulin to bring down blood sugar levels.
But the body’s own immune system can turn against the beta cells, destroying them and leaving people with a potentially fatal disease because they cannot regulate their blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes is different to the far more common type 2 diabetes which is largely due to poor lifestyle.
The team at Harvard was led by Prof. Doug Melton who began the search for a cure when his son was diagnosed 23 years ago. He then had a daughter who also developed type 1.
Prof. Doug Melton is attempting to replace the approximately 150 million missing beta cells, using stem cell technology.
He found the perfect cocktail of chemicals to transform embryonic stem cells into functioning beta cells.
Tests on mice with type 1 diabetes, published in the journal Cell, showed that the lab-made cells could produce insulin and control blood sugar levels for several months.
Dr. Doug Melton said: “It was gratifying to know that we could do something that we always thought was possible.
“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line.”
However, his children were not quite so impressed: “I think, like all kids, they always assumed that if I said I’d do this, I’d do it.”
If the beta cells were injected into a person they would still face an immune assault and ultimately would be destroyed.
However, more research is needed before this could become a cure.
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