Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) develops when a person’s own immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called “beta cells.” Blood sugar levels can spike when this happens, causing organ and nerve damage, heart disease, limb amputation, or even death.
While artificial insulin can control Type 1 diabetes, it does not replace the insulin-producing beta cells that are destroyed. Treatment, therefore, is a chronic regimen consisting of multiple daily injections of insulin (11 per day, on average) to maintain blood sugar levels. This leads to constant worry and stress for the patient—even with the best treatment, perfect control of blood sugar levels is impossible.
“11 million: That’s the number of the number of insulin injections Type 1 diabetes patients self-administer daily in the US alone to manage their illness.”
Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong disease; patients are always at risk for life-threatening complications, not to mention the impact of constant monitoring of glucose, dietary restrictions and multiple daily insulin injections on their quality of life.
Scientists have begun to explore a revolutionary concept: What if, instead of trying to replace the function of the beta cells by injecting insulin, we could replace the lost beta cells themselves?
A group of scientists at ViaCyte, Inc., is working on this idea, using an embryonic stem cell therapy approach to treat Type 1 diabetes. Their work is jointly funded by California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and the International Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).
“What if we could replace the lost beta cells themselves?”
After many years of work, the ViaCyte team has invented a recipe to turn human embryonic stem cells into cells known as “pancreatic progenitor cells,” which can mature into fully functional, insulin-producing beta cells. The team is currently testing this “recipe” in a human clinical trial at the University of California, San Diego, in which patients with Type 1 diabetes are treated with an implantable device about the size of a credit card. This “credit card” device contains pancreatic progenitor cells, which, over time, can mature into normal, functional beta cells, replacing the ones lost in Type 1 diabetes.
The goal of this trial is to find out whether the therapy is safe in humans, one of the critical first hurdles of any clinical trial. So far, the therapy has appeared to be safe and well-tolerated. However, it is crucial to remember that while early results have been promising, they must be tested and refined further, and setbacks may arise. The next test is to see whether the therapy can regulate blood sugar levels in humans the way it has successfully done so in mice.
The results of this trial will be pivotal, and might be important next steps towards revolutionizing our approach to treating diabetes.