Saturday science subject: Curing type 1 diabetes

— 4:51 PM on April 14, 2007

A joint study carried out by the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto, Brazil and the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association may hold the key to a cure for type one diabetes. Type one diabetes occurs when a person's immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells in his or her pancreas, making the person dependent on insulin replacement therapy—either via daily injections or an insulin pump. As The Times reports, a new form of treatment tested in the study could remove the need for insulin therapy in type one diabetics:

By the time most patients receive a clinical diagnosis [for type one diabetes], 60 to 80 per cent of their beta cells have been wiped out. . . . Dr Voltarelli's team hoped that if they intervened early enough they could wipe out and then rebuild the body's immune system by using stem cells, preserving a reservoir of beta cells and allowing them to regenerate.

They enrolled Brazilian diabetics aged between 14 and 31 who had been diagnosed within the previous six weeks. After stem cells had been harvested from their blood, they then underwent a mild form of chemotherapy to eliminate the white blood cells causing damage to the pancreas. They were then given transfusions of their own stem cells to help rebuild their immune systems.

Out of the 15 subjects, 11 were able to stop insulin therapy immediately and no longer require insulin shots three years after the study was carried out. Another two subjects needed "some supplemental insulin" for 12 and 20 months after the procedure, but they were eventually able to dispense with insulin therapy altogether, as well. According to Richard Burt, who co-authored the study, the treatment will probably become widely available in "five to eight years."
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