Researchers Use Embryonic Stem Cells to Treat Diabetes

A study in mice shows promise for humans with diabetes.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 10:26 PM

Feb. 20, 2008— -- Doctors may be one step closer to using stem cells to cure diabetes, according to a new study by researchers at the stem cell engineering company Novacell, Inc. in San Diego who report that they managed to convert human embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing cells.

Insulin is the chemical produced in the pancreas that allows the body to regulate blood-sugar levels and it is precisely the substance that many of those with diabetes lack.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology, found that when they injected these human cells into diabetic mice, the treatment alleviated diabetes in the rodents.

According to Dr. Emmanuel Baetge, primary study investigator and chief scientific officer at Novocell, Inc., the new technique used by his team will provide doctors with a bulk supply of clean, uncontaminated insulin-secreting cells for use in diabetes patients.

"This is a much more controlled process, and you basically are sure of getting the same quality of cell every time you do the implant," Baetge explained.

"Currently, a patient would have to wait and wait for a cadaver organ to become available, and even then there is a high risk of the cells from that organ being infected or contaminated," he said. "If we instead use embryonic stem cells then we can also make unlimited numbers of these cells and have an unlimited source that we can stockpile and have available whenever a patient is ready for it."

Stem cell experts not directly involved with the research agreed that it represents an exciting advancement.

"Theoretically, an infinite number of insulin-producing cells can be generated [using this technique]," said Dr. Curt Freed, director of the Neurotransplantation Program for Parkinson's Disease at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.