by Holly Ellyatt
Research into a possible cure for type 1 diabetes has taken an "important step forward," according to the latest research by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
The study, which was published in journals Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology on Monday, builds on work by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute which last year discovered a way of creating beta cells (whose primary function is to store and release insulin) which could then be implanted in mice and, it is hoped in future, humans with diabetes.
Now, in the latest development, scientists and researchers at MIT and Harvard, in collaboration with other university experts, have developed an implantable device that could prevent those implanted insulin-producing cells from being attacked by the immune system for six months – effectively allowing the insulin-producing cells to do their job.
Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes a person's blood sugar (glucose) level to become too high. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system kills off the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Daily injections of insulin are the primary treatment, but are only partially successful in regulating patients' metabolism.
If a device could be implanted into diabetics that could prevent those insulin-producing cells from being attacked, it could be a huge leap forward in terms of research. The results could have an impact on health provision around the world as diabetes ranks as one of the leading causes of death in America.
Type 1 diabetes differs from type 2, where the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin, or the body's cells don't react to insulin. Pregnant women can also develop a usually more short-term form of gestational diabetes.
Diabetes affects 29.1 million Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association, with approximately 1.25 American children and adults with type 1 diabetes. As such, type 2 diabetes is more of a national health threat for many developed and emerging economies where rapidly changing diets – and the rise of sugar in our diets and inactivity - are affecting citizens' health.
People with diagnosed diabetes incur average medical expenditures of about $13,700 per year, of which about $7,900 is attributed to diabetes, according to the association's figures from 2012. People with diagnosed diabetes, on average, have medical expenditures approximately 2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes.
In the U.K., there are currently 3.9 million people living with diabetes, with 90 percent of those affected having type 2, according to the National Health Service (NHS).
The next step for Harvard and MIT's new bioengineering work "brings the promise of a possible future for type 1 diabetes within striking distance of phase 1 (preliminary) clinical trials," B. D. Colen, Harvard Staff Writer, said in the Harvard Gazette on Monday reporting on the papers.
"It is believed that if implanted beta cells could be shielded from immune attack, and would respond to the body's own signals for insulin, they would be likely to eliminate most, or even all, the complications of the disease, and would, in effect, serve as a cure," Colen added.
Doug Melton, the co-director of Harvard's Stem Cell Institute which was largely involved in the research, said that it was "an important step forward, in an animal model, because it shows that there may be a way to overcome one of the major hurdles that have stood in the way of a cure for type 1 diabetes."
Melton told the Harvard Gazette that: "Now…We have stem cell-derived beta cells that can provide insulin in a device that appears capable of protecting them from immune attack."