Stem Cells for the Treatment of Type I Diabetes

Stem cell treatments are gaining momentum as a viable option for successfully slowing down -- or potentially halting -- the progression of type 1 diabetes.

According to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Type 1 diabetes affects as many as three million Americans. In addition, more than 15,000 children and young adults are newly diagnosed each year. This averages about 40 children per day. Currently, there is no cure for diabetes, although experts and researchers are working with this as a goal.

As a type of autoimmune disease, diabetes is caused when the body’s immune system misinterprets the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called islets, and destroys them. There is no definitive cause for diabetes, however it is believed that there are both genetic factors as well as environmental factors, such as viruses or allergens.

Type 1 diabetes presents the risk for many other complications, including blindness, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke. Another possible long-term complication is neuropathy, or nerve damage, which may result in loss of feeling and even amputations.

Stabilizing insulin levels is the key to managing diabetes. The standard treatment today focuses supplementing the body’s insulin, typically through injection (needles) or insulin pumps, which are worn outside the body. This requires the patient testing his/her blood sugar levels several times per day, and carefully maintaining blood insulin levels. While this is recognized as the best standard of care today, the goal is to find a way to help the body produce and/or regulate its own insulin levels.

The latest scientific breakthroughs, which use stem cells to create the insulin-producing islets, are widely viewed as the most promising of treatments being used and further developed today. While stem cell therapy today cannot cure type 1 diabetes, its intent is to stall – or even stop – its progression. There are different types of stem cells and stem cell treatment therapies.

Stem cell treatments are gaining momentum as a viable option for successfully slowing down -- or potentially halting -- the progression of type 1 diabetes. Stem cells have the ability to grow into different kinds of cells, including insulin-producing cells. There are documented cases where patients have gone as long as four years (and counting) without needing insulin injections. There are a few different methods of stem cell treatment for type 1 diabetes.

One method of using adult stem cells is called autologous nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, or HSCT. It involves harvesting the patient’s own stem cells, typically from bone marrow. This was the first stem cell treatment method used, and therefore has largest volume of results and the longest track record. Downsides to this process are that it is invasive, typically very painful, and presents the danger of complications from the harvesting procedure itself.

There are studies underway which have used embryonic cells to treat type 1 diabetes in animals. These cells are different than both adult stem cells and umbilical cord stem cells. The use of embryonic stem cells continues to be met with controversy.

A type of therapy, which is neither invasive nor controversial, is the use of stem cells from umbilical cord blood (blood which remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after the baby is born). There have been many successful trials in which patients who received stem cells from umbilical cord blood have been able produce their own insulin. So far, this has resulted in significantly reduced need for insulin from outside sources.

Regardless of the type of treatment for type 1 diabetes, experts agree that early diagnosis and treatment is critical. Research has shown that, once diagnosed, the sooner the treatment begins, the better the short and long-term results.

Since the first successful transplant in 1998, cord blood stem cells have changed – or even saved – more than 7,000 lives. To date, stem cells from cord blood have been used treat more than 75 types of diseases, including numerous types of cancer, anemia, inherited metabolic disorders and deficiencies of the immune system, including type 1 diabetes. The number uses for stem cells continues to grow.