Diabetes is a condition that affects millions of people all over the world. It kills more people than most other types of disease, and has few treatment options. Treatments for the two types of diabetes vary, but they usually are very time consuming and exhausting. But the emerging field of stem cell therapy may offer transformative solutions for people living with diabetes.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a complex blend of pancreatic failure and autoimmune dysfunction. In diabetics the body either cannot produce the hormone insulin, or insulin can be produced but not absorbed by the cells. This results in glucose (sugar) floating freely throughout the bloodstream and reeking havoc, without being absorbed to feed the organs that use glucose as fuel.

In conventional treatments, diabetics must either take insulin every day to ensure they can properly assimilate the food they eat, or carefully monitor their blood sugar levels throughout the day, supplementing with insulin or glucose as needed.

Diabetes can be genetic or develop from diet and lifestyle habits. Diabetes comes with many complications because of the blend of high levels of glucose in the blood stream and insufficient food for the organs. Diabetics are at high risk for circulatory problems, nerve dysfunction and neuropathy, heart disease, kidney failure, blindness, loss of limbs, and death.

Even more advanced treatments for diabetes like pancreas transplantation have minimal success rates, because of the high propensity of the immune system to attack the transplanted organ as a foreign invader. Anyone receiving a pancreas transplant must take immunosuppressant medications for the rest of his or her life, which can result in greater susceptibility to illness and infection, making transplantation a more pronounced health threat than the diabetes itself.

How Can Stem Cells Be Used to Treat Diabetes?

Stem cells hold a great deal of promise for treating, and potentially curing, diabetes. Unlike conventional treatments that just try to manage blood glucose levels, stem cell therapy strives to restore the lost pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin.

Recent studies in North America have shown that it is possible to stimulate the pancreas to grow new cells in diabetic mice. The researchers were particularly excited because the stem cells did not simply reproduce into beta cells; they catalyzed the pancreas to produce new cells of its own. This new cell growth only happened in diabetic mice, not in those that were not infected. This means the stem cells have a type of intelligence that can allow results more specific and sustainable than those that come from transplantation.

Types of Stem Cell Diabetes Treatments

Researchers are experimenting with a few different approaches to treating diabetes with stem cells. In the adult stem cell field, researchers are seeking to identify and replicate the stem cells that are the precursors to islet cells, the cell family that includes the insulin-producing beta cells. Some researchers are working with cells drawn from the pancreas. Using these biliary tree cells, which come from the network of ducts that connects the pancreas to the intestines, has the advantage of ensuring the production of a higher percentage of beta cells from the process.

Other teams are working on using stem cells derived from bone marrow. In both cases, these methods have the advantage of using the patients own stem cells (autologous stem cells) to ensure a greater potential for acceptance by the immune system. Bone marrow-derived cells in particular show a unique form of intelligence, in that they tend to seek out only damaged tissue and trigger new cell growth in those areas, avoiding the potential for tumor development and immunological rejection that accompanies fetal stem cell therapy.

Some researchers are exploring the use of fetal stem cells for these procedures. Fetal stem cells are more prolific and pluripotent, which means they can more easily be directed to differentiate into the necessary cells. But they come with the added risk of increased potential for tumor development, and they are more likely to be rejected by the bodys immune system.

The most promising method for treating diabetics with stem cells is to use the patients own DNA to grown embryonic stem cells. In theory, these cells can be engineered to avoid immune system rejection and programmed to produce both the beta cells and the other types of islet cells that ensure proper glucose management. And as they are grown using the patients own DNA and programmed with specific features to make them perfect for healing the pancreas, these autologous embryonic cells will be more readily accepted by the body and more effective than donor fetal cells or non-embryonic autologous cells.

As with all stem cell therapies, diabetic treatment with stem cells is a new and experimental field. Researchers still need to overcome the hurdles of the immune systems propensity to attack beta cells in type 1 diabetics (even transplanted or newly grown beta cells) and the need for easier methods of developing renewable embryonic cells.

But some successful treatments have already occurred in experiments, and the future looks bright for diabetic stem cell treatments. One day we may be able to heal people with diabetes by using the bodys own ability to regenerate itself.


National Institutes of Health
Diabetes Research Institute
Explore Stem Cells
National Geographic