First, let’s explain what they are.
Stem cells are like the “raw materials” for all cells in the body. Before maturity, they form human “specialized” cells (heart cells, skin cells, liver cells, etc.), and once mature, they mostly develop into blood cells (e.g., red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets).
Over the past few years, the medical community has greatly advanced stem cell research. In theory, stem cells could replace most sick or defective body cells. For people with type 1 diabetes (T1D), this sounds like an interesting solution to replace their insulin-producing cells (i.e., Langerhans’ islet beta cells in the pancreas), which were destroyed by their own immune system.
And why not a pancreas cell transplant from a donor?
Langerhans’ islet transplants from an organ donor, also known as the Edmonton protocol, have been available for about 20 years. However, the transplant recipient’s immune system detects the foreign cells and destroys them, so this treatment is rarely used. To avoid this reaction, recipients are required, for the rest of their lives, to take anti-rejection drugs that decrease immune system activity, carry severe side effects (e.g., greater risk of infections) and decrease quality of life compared to traditional T1D treatments. As a result, the Edmonton protocol is recommended only for patients whose blood sugar management is particularly difficult and/or patients who have frequent severe hypoglycemic episodes. Also, the treatment is not widely accessible due to the limited number of organ donors.
In theory, a treatment for T1D with stem cells, which would be drawn from the patient’s body, would yield vastly different results and offer the following benefits compared to transplants:
- The immune system would not reject the stem cells, which would come from the patient and not from a donor, so there would be no need for anti-rejection drugs.
- Unlike donor cells, which become available only when a donor passes away, stem cells are widely accessible.
Are there any new developments?
The University of Alberta, in Canada, has conducted many studies about stem cells and T1D. So far, only mice trials have been completed; there have been no human trials yet. The process is quite simple: stem cells are injected into the great vein just like islet transplants from a donor, which avoids risky and invasive surgery.
Recently, Alberta’s research team announced that the mice trials were a huge success: the mice with T1D were completely cured. The researchers believe that stem cells are less affected by the immune system, which opens the door to long-term treatment, or maybe even a cure.
They hope to be able to start human trials in the next few years.
The BETTER research project is a registry of people with type 1 diabetes.
If you wish to participate, sign up for the BETTER registry today!
- Shapiro, A. J., Lakey, J. R., Ryan, E. A., Korbutt, G. S., Toth, E., Warnock, G. L., Rajotte, R. V. (2000). Islet Transplantation in Seven Patients with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus Using a Glucocorticoid-Free Immunosuppressive Regimen. New England Journal of Medicine, 343(4), 230–238.
- Gamble, A., Pepper, A. R., Bruni, A., Shapiro, A. M. (2018). The journey of islet cell transplantation and future development. Islets, 10(2), 80–94. doi:10.1080/19382014.2018.1428511
- Rosove, J. (2020, November 17). Cure for diabetes? University of Alberta researchers believe they’ve found one. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/cure-for-diabetes-university-of-alberta-researchers-believe-they-ve-found-one-1.5192813