There have already been two people with type 1 diabetes who received last week a stem cell implant to produce insulin in an attempt to “cure” the disease, according to a report published this week in New Scientist magazine.
This is the first time that a stem cell implant is used to treat type 1 diabetes. Within three months, experts will know if the device actually controls diabetes. A third person will also receive this experimental treatment at a later stage.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that progressively destroys the pancreas cells responsible for insulin production, a hormone that diverts glucose from the blood into the cells, thus avoiding the negative effects of this sugar. Patients with this problem have to administer insulin several times throughout the day to control blood glucose levels.
Although there are genetic determinants, very little is known about the causes of this disease. About 10% of the world’s 442 million people with diabetes suffer from type 1 diabetes. The rest have type 2 diabetes, which occurs throughout life as the body becomes insensitive to insulin or simply produces less Than necessary.
The implant, named PEC-Direct, is produced by the company Viacyte in San Diego, California and is the size of a credit card. In the implant are contained the stem cells that, once inside the body, enter into a maturation process that lasts about three months, specializing to produce the insulin. These cells originated from an embryo in the early stages of development not harnessed by a woman who did in vitro fertilization.
As the body’s sugar levels rise, implant cells are expected to initiate the production of the hormone to reduce glucose levels. And because implanted cells do not belong to patients, it is necessary to use medication to suppress the immune system by not letting the body attack the implant.
“If it turns out, we can call it ‘functional cure'”, said Paul Laikind of Viacyte, quoted by New Scientist. “It is not a true cure because it does not solve the autoimmune problem that causes the disease, but we would be replacing the cells that are missing”.
In a previous trial of 19 people, the company proved that stem cells developed in islets of Langerhans – the group of cells in the pancreas responsible for insulin production. However, I was aware that there were few cells, that trial was not done to treat diabetes.
The new implant can be placed on the forearm, as it is porous, allows the blood vessels to penetrate it, so as to reach the stem cells that can be fed.
“If this treatment succeeds, this strategy can really change the way we treat type 1 diabetes in the future”, said Emily Burns of Diabetes UK, an institution dedicated to the disease, also quoted by New Scientist. So far, the only equivalent treatment involves transplantation of pancreatic cells from donor organs, and the technique works, but it is limited to the number of organ donors.
For 15 years, stem cells have been tried to treat the disease, but without success, if this implant works, there is no longer a stock problem with the organs. Stem cells can be multiplied to produce the necessary implants.