Potential cure for diabetes within sight

A potential new cure for diabetes is within sight, based on advances in cell therapy, thanks to the work of Tel Aviv University researchers.

Diabetes is a debilitating condition that afflicts eight percent of Americans and can lead to blindness, kidney failure, strokes and heart disease.

Shimon Efrat of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine has developed a way to cultivate cells derived from insulin-producing beta cells from human tissue in the lab. It may be possible to implant these new healthy cells into patients with type 1 diabetes.

If successful, this method, which artificially replicates the insulin cells people need, could ensure that fewer people will die while waiting for a life-saving pancreas and kidney. Efrat’s research paves the way for new and alternative forms of treatment in cases in which organ transplantation is not an option. And one day, the procedure may become as simple as a blood transfusion.

Type 1 diabetes, the most severe form of the condition, emerges in childhood or early adulthood, when the body’s immune system stops working properly and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas.

Beta cells are needed to produce insulin, and a shortage of insulin inhibits the breakdown of food into energy. By the time a diagnosis is made, most beta cells are destroyed beyond repair. Injections of insulin can ease the symptoms, but some sufferers from the disease eventually require extreme measures, such as organ transplants, to stay alive. “The shortage of organ donors makes the development of new cell sources for cell therapy critical,” said Efrat. “Using beta cell expansion, we are able to grow a massive reserve of healthy cells that may be made to produce enough insulin to restore the function of the destroyed cells.”

Compared to previous research, Efrat’s work has increased the number of human beta cells successfully.

In theory, cells from one donor can be multiplied thousands of times,” said Efrat, explaining that the next hurdle will be to “convince” these beta cells to produce insulin in the human body. Another major hurdle he faces is to get a body’s immune system to accept these new cells when transplanted. Human clinical trials, Efrat cautioned, may not begin for another five years or more.

The News, 10/9/2008

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