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Stem cell breakthrough could help cure type 1 diabetes

Scientists have turned human stem cells into insulin-producing cells.
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MOLEKUUL/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images

Scientists have edged one step closer to a major treatment for (and possibly cure for) type 1 diabetes. A UCSF team has claimed it's the first to turn human stem cells into the mature, insulin-producing cells that type 1 patients don't have. The key was to acknowledge a reality in the development of islets, or clusters of healthy beta cells (which generate insulin) in the pancreas. They separated partly differentiated pancreatic stem cells into islets, jumpstarting their development and leading to responses to blood sugar that more closely represented mature cells. Even alpha and delta cells grew more effectively, UCSF said.

The technique has only been tested in mice so far, but the results were positive. It took just a "matter of days" for implanted islets to produce insulin as well as the rodents' native cells.

If the research continues to bear fruit, though, it could offer a much more realistic solution for type 1 diabetes. Pancreas transplants can help, but they frequently fail and still require drugs that suppress your immune system. There are tests for safer and more targeted islet implants, but they still tend to require organs from dead donors. This breakthrough could lead to on-demand implants and make it relatively easy to gain (or regain) healthy insulin levels.

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