Diabetes is a particularly nasty disease. By itself, it’s the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 75,000 Americans every year. But it’s also a major cause of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attacks, strokes, blindness, kidney disease, and amputations. As such, it contributes to the deaths of several hundred thousand more people, according to the American Diabetes Association.
There are actually two kinds of diabetes: Type 2, formerly called adult-onset diabetes, accounts for 85 to 90 percent of cases and is generally associated with obesity and lack of physical activity. Type 1, formerly called juvenile onset diabetes, accounts for the remaining 10 to 15 percent of cases and is most often caused when the body’s immune system–which is supposed to protect us from invading viruses and bacteria–turns on itself and destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
Although type 2 diabetes can often be prevented or controlled by eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise, and making other lifestyle changes, there is no way to prevent type 1. The only treatment for type 1 is insulin, typically delivered to the patient via daily (or more frequent) injections or an insulin pump.
So you can imagine the excitement when scientists at Harvard University announced that they may have discovered a cure for type 1 diabetes that could stimulate the body’s ability to produce its own insulin.
Here’s how it works:
The scientists were able to implant healthy, human insulin-producing cells (called islet cells) into mice. The cells were encapsulated in a special compound derived from brown algae called triazole-thiomorpholine dioxide, which prevented them from being attacked and destroyed by the body’s over-aggressive immune system. Once inside the mice, the encapsulated islet cells immediately began producing insulin—and continued to do so for six months, which was as long as the study ran.
Professor Doug Melton, the man behind the discovery, has been working toward this goal for more than 20 years, ever since his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as an infant. Melton has a younger daughter who was also diagnosed with the same condition as a baby.
Melton is the co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute and co-chair of the university’s department of stem cell and regenerative biology. The next step for him and his colleagues is to do the same encapsulation and implantation techniques on humans with type 1 diabetes.
Julia Greenstein, president of discovery research at JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), the organization that partially funded Melton’s mouse studies, is thrilled. “JDRF is excited by these findings and we hope to see this research progress into human clinical trials and ultimately a potential new type 1 diabetes therapy,” she said in a JDRF press release. “These treatments aim to effectively establish long-term insulin independence and eliminate the daily burden of managing the disease for months, possibly years, at a time without the need for immune suppression.”
Melton’s studies were published in the journals Nature Medicine and Nature Biotechnology.