Stem Cells -- a Possible Cure for Diabetes

The study looked at just 15 patients recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. While in this study all the patients survived, and 14 of 15 patients were insulin-free for one to 36 months, even the study's senior author admits the study has its limitations.

"I would never use the word 'cure,'" Burt says. "There is a lot more time in which this study needs to be followed."

The study also looks only at treating a very select group of patients -- those who have had a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes for less than six weeks. It remains to be determined whether the treatment can provide benefits for all people who have type 1 diabetes -- or even lasting results for those who get it.

Despite the weaknesses of the study, however, its results are intriguing and warrant further research, says Dr. Larry Deeb, president of the American Diabetes Association.

"[Type 1 diabetes] is the kind of diabetes that most kids get," Deeb says. "If this [treatment] were to be very effective, there would be no more new diabetes. If you stop type 1 diabetes, that would be very important."

Is the Treatment Too Risky?

The treatment is not without its risks. Critics of the study say destroying the immune system -- the body's main defense against infection -- has big implications.

Even though the patient's immune system is the cause of the disease, removing it even temporarily can bring about significant side effects, such as fevers, low white blood cell counts, nausea, vomiting and hair loss.

The treatment also presents a threat of serious infections, although in the study only one of 15 patients developed such an infection and was successfully treated with antibiotics.

But there is also a risk of death.

"I would expect the risk of death will be less than 1.3 percent, and I think you could do it for less than a 0.5 percent risk of death," Burt says. "There is a risk-to-benefit in everything."

However, Dr. Michael Haller, assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Florida, and Dr. Desmond Schatz, associate chairman of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine, argue, "This particular therapy is associated with an unacceptably high risk for complications and even death." They add that conservative estimates of death and other serious complications from this treatment would be between 1.5 and 3 percent.

Stem cell transplantation "is a pretty significant immunologic intervention, and you have to be humbled by the patients who are willing to take these risks and be involved in this study."

But many patients may be willing to take the risk.

"It's a very personal decision," said one patient, who participated in the study in a translated e-mail message. "Each patient has to balance the pros and cons and decide what is best for him."

As for side effects, the patient, who preferred his name not be released, said, "I am not concerned with them. I am aware of the known side effects. The unknown, only time will tell me."

Former ABC News Medical Unit intern Dr. Mark Abdelmalek contributed to this report.

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