Diabetes cure a step closer as scientists use stem cell technology to produce insulin

US scientists 'functionally cured' mice with a severe case of the disease

Alexis Stanley shows her insulin kit on January 17, 2020 in St.Paul, Minnesota. It's the wealthiest country on the planet but the sometimes staggering cost of health care means that Americans in need of everyday items such as insulin to treat diabetes resort to the black market or pharmacies across the border to source cheaper drugs. / AFP / Kerem Yucel / TO GO WITH AFP STORY by Ivan Couronne: "In US, diabetics turn to black market or Canada for life-saving insulin"
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Scientists searching for a diabetes cure have used stem cell techniques to produce insulin, in what was described as a breakthrough in the fight against the disease.

Researchers in St Louis, Missouri 'functionally cured' diabetes in mice for nine months, bringing hope to some 400 million people around the world.

Medics hope the new research will help people with type one diabetes, who cannot produce insulin and leaves the body struggling to regulate blood sugar levels.

Dr Job Simon, an endocrinology specialist at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said the US research on mice offered hope to the millions of type one diabetics unable to improve their symptoms through healthier living.

Many other questions remain unanswered, at least there is now a beacon of hope for type one diabetics on the horizon

“This is a very important paper which is advancing the possibility of an eventual cure for diabetes type one,” he said.

“The researchers have developed a more efficient technique for developing beta cells in mice using stem cells.

“Whether this could be translatable to humans needs to be evaluated further, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

“Many other questions remain unanswered, at least there is now a beacon of hope for type one diabetics on the horizon,” said Dr Simon.

While doctors in the UAE welcomed the development, some warned against an over reliance on new medication when simple lifestyle tweaks can also reverse type two diabetes.

People with type two diabetes don't respond to insulin as well as they should and later in the disease often don't make enough hormone.

“I’m not excited by this research as new medication is not always necessary,” said Dr Subramanian Meyyappan, consultant of internal medicine in Sharjah.

 Type 2 diabetes has become a global epidemic but is a manageable chronic condition. Roy Cooper / The National
 Type 2 diabetes has become a global epidemic but is a manageable chronic condition. Roy Cooper / The National

“This research will inevitable result in more drugs that will be expensive and only affordable for few in society.

“As more people have been given insulin in their diet over generations, more have become insulin resistant and developed diabetes as a result.

“Our diet has evolved to include a lot more carbohydrates than fats, so the beta cells of the pancreas have been put under unnecessary stress.

“This has caused an insulin resistance, but it can be counteracted by consuming less carbohydrates, more fat and by intermittent fasting,” said Dr Meyyappan.

The latest findings from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis tested mice with severe diabetes and very high blood sugar levels.

By converting human stem cells into insulin producing beta pancreatic cells, scientists were able to show diabetes gradually reversed in those mice by giving their bodies the ability to control their blood sugar.

Within nine months, the mice had been cured of the disease. While the research is positive, it is some way off human testing.

Creating enough insulin producing cells for the same techniques to be effective in humans could become a barrier to further success, the researchers said.

A huge community turnout in Zabeel Park for the #BeatDiabetes annual walk in cooperation with Landmark Group. Courtesy: Dubai Health Authority twittwer account
A huge community turnout in Zabeel Park for the beat diabetes annual walk. Courtesy: Dubai Health Authority 

“A common problem when you’re trying to transform a human stem cell into an insulin-producing beta cell is that you also produce other cells that you don’t want,” said the research’s principal investigator, Professor Jeffrey Millman.

“In the case of beta cells, we might get other types of pancreas cells or liver cells.”

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Off-target pancreas and liver cells do not hurt anything when implanted into a mouse, but they do not fight diabetes either.

“The more off-target cells you get, the less therapeutically relevant cells you have,” he said.

More than a billion beta cells would be required to cure a person of diabetes using the same technique, making a final solution challenging.

Market analysts at Transparency Market Research reported the global diabetes medication market is likely to be worth $58.4 billion (Dh214.5bn) by 2025, due to a surge in demand for drugs.

Dr Meyyappan said medication is not always the answer to chronic health problems such as type two diabetes.

“There are already many insulin medications on the market, when the same results can be achieved by fasting and a change in diet," he said.

“There is a long way to go before this can be used on humans. It is more important to look at what causes insulin resistance.

“Fasting, exercise and a low carbohydrate diet can make a huge difference, and it is free,” he said.

According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), 17.3 per cent of the UAE population aged 20-79 has lifestyle-related type two diabetes.

With more than a million people living with the disease, the UAE is ranked 15th on a global scale for comparative prevalence.