New Diabetes Breakthrough May Mean New Treatments

New research may mean advancements in treatment options for individuals living with type 1 diabetes.

Researchers from the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have identified the existence of stem cells in the pancreas that can be developed into beta cells that are responsive to glucose.

The study addresses a critical factor in finding a cure for diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the pancreas produces little to no insulin.

“The immune system of individuals living with type 1 diabetes is overactive and sees the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas as a threat to the body. As a result, it sets out to destroy them,” said Dr. Bill Johnson.

Johnson is a Dallas, Texas, physician who treats patients living with diabetes using stem cell therapy.

About 1.25 million people in the United States are living with type 1 diabetes, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Numbers from the JDRF indicate that 40,000 people are diagnosed with the autoimmune disease each year.

The JDRF also estimates that 15 percent of those living with type 1 diabetes in the U.S. are children.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 29 million people in the U.S. are living with type 2 diabetes, a form of the disease often caused by genetics, lifestyle choices, and obesity. The CDC also estimates that 8.1 million of these people are undiagnosed.

More than 1.4 million cases of type 2 diabetes are diagnosed nationwide each year, and more than one in every 10 adults over the age of 20 has the disease.

Researchers have long believed that the pancreas contains progenitor stem cells that could help to regenerate islets, the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. In this study, the DRI scientists located the exact area of these stem cells in the pancreas and tested their potential to multiply and develop into glucose-responsive beta cells.

The hope is that by identifying these cells as a source for beta cell regeneration, there will be new regenerative medical treatments for type 1 diabetes.

In a previous study, the DRI researchers successfully used the FDA-approved natural growth factor bone morphogenetic protein 7, or BMP-7, to incite progenitor-like cells in lab-grown human non-endocrine pancreatic tissue.

In this current study, the DRI scientists were able to show that the stem cells with the ability to respond to BMP-7 are found in the pancreatic ductal and glandular network of the pancreas. The cells also contain the protein known as PDX1 which gives them the ability to develop into beta cells. They also contain the cell surface receptor ALK3 which has been identified to give cells the ability to develop into many types of tissues.

The DRI team was able to extract the stem cells that contained the PDX1 and ALK3 and grow them in a dish with BMP-7 to develop into beta cells.

The DRI study is not the first to try regenerative methods to produce new beta cells. Other attempts involved the use of embryonic, pluripotent, and adult stem cells, as well as pig islet cells, to try and initiate insulin production in individuals with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

The DRI researchers hope that their new approach will provide a safer and more effective method of treatment that does not put patients at risk of rejecting cells or tissues.

“The ability to use the body’s own stem cells and tissues to heal itself mean there is no risk of rejection and no need for anti-rejection drugs that are necessary when cell or tissue transplants come from other people,” Johnson said.