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Stem Cell Treatment Promises Cure for Type 1 Diabetes

An experimental stem cell therapy helped teens with type 1 diabetes to enter remission and halt insulin injections for a long period, an early study shows. The findings of the research team from Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai were presented in the US at the American Diabetes Association annual meeting and reported in the July issue of the journal Diabetes Care.

The small-scale study involved 28 teens suffering from type 1 diabetes. All of them underwent an experimental stem cell treatment with the use of their own stem cells, and 15 went into remission and could halt insulin injections for about 1.5 years on average.

The treatment involved stem cell therapy combined with drugs suppressing the body's immune system, which attacks and destroys insulin-producing beta-cells within the pancreas in type 1 diabetes. The aim of the treatment was to arrest autoimmune aggression by killing the destructive immune system cells and replacing them with immature stem cells that would give rise to normal immune system cells.

To achieve that, the following procedure was applied. First, the patients received drugs to stimulate blood stem cell production. The blood stem cells were then harvested and frozen. After that, the patients were hospitalized and given medications to kill immune system cells responsible for autoimmune reactions. Then, the collected blood stem cells were injected back into the patients.

All the patients involved in the study considered the treatment to be beneficial. Eight teens could drop their insulin injections for two years, on average, and one patient could halt insulin injections for 3.5 years.

Still, some of them experienced side effects due to use of the immune suppression drugs. These were fever, hair loss, low white blood cell counts, vomiting, and bone marrow suppression, and lasted two to four weeks. These side-effects were moderate compared with those in previous studies that involved immune suppression (infections, pneumonia, organ damage etc.).

Though the study results are very promising, the procedure is still to be prepared for widespread use. The researchers need to investigate long-term side effects of this approach to diabetes treatment and better understand its underlying mechanisms.