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Researchers Take One Giant Step Toward Curing Type 1 Diabetes

Update Date: Oct 10, 2014 09:32 AM EDT

Researchers from Harvard University have taken one huge step toward curing type 1 diabetes. The team reportedly used stem cells to created millions of healthy cells that would ideally cure type 1 diabetes if they were implanted.

"You never know for sure that something like this is going to work until you've tested it numerous ways," said lead investigator of the study, Douglas Melton, Harvard's Xander University Professor, reported by the Harvard Gazette. "We've given these cells three separate challenges with glucose in mice, and they've responded appropriately; that was really exciting. It was gratifying to know that we could do something that we always thought was possible but many people felt it wouldn't work. If we had shown this was not possible, then I would have had to give up on this whole approach. Now I'm really energized."

Type 1 diabetes is a chronic illness that occurs when the body's immune system destroys beta cells, which are responsible for the production of the hormone, insulin that controls blood sugar levels by converting sugar and other foods into energy.

For this study, the researchers headed by stem cell scientist Melton, set out to cure the illness. Melton started his research 15 years ago shortly after his son, Sam, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Melton's daughter, Emma, was also diagnosed with the same illness. The team used stem cells that were able to produce hundreds of millions of healthy beta cells. The mass production of these cells would ideally be implanted in humans where they can produce insulin normally.

"We're tired of curing mice," Melton said in an interview reported by the Boston Globe. "Most patients are sick of hearing that something's just around the corner; I'm sick of thinking things are just around the corner. But I do believe in the big picture."

The cells are currently being tested in animal models. However, the team hopes that the cells can be tested in humans within the next few years.

"I think a lot of people will change how they are harvesting and producing cells in their labs to see if they can reproduce this," said Dr. Elizabeth Seaquist, president for medicine and science at the American Diabetes Association.

Despite the success in creating healthy beta cells, the researchers still have to stop the immune system from destroying the new cells. Melton is working with bioengineer, Daniel Anderson from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to find a way to stop the immune system from harming these cells.

The study was published in the journal, Cell.

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