Successful stem cell treatment in mice could one day help cure type 1 diabetes

When a professor's two children were diagnosed with the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes he set out to cure it

By Sarah Gray
Published October 10, 2014 6:28PM (EDT)

On Thursday important research on stem cells and type 1 diabetes, done by professor Doug Melton, was published in the journal Cell. The results of this study have both wide and very personal implications.

Two decades ago, National Geographic reported, the current Harvard professor and stem cell researcher vowed to cure type 1 diabetes. His infant son had just been diagnosed with the disease. Professor Melton's efforts redoubled when, at age 14, his daughter was also diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder.

With the publication of this research he may have taken a step towards helping cure this disease. According to National Geographic, Melton has created a virtually unlimited supply of the cells that are missing in people with type 1 diabetes."

Type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in children or young adults, affects around three million Americans. Type 1 diabetes "is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy," according to Mayo Clinic. This is due to the fact that the body's immune system attacks beta cells in the pancreas, which control insulin production.

Professor Melton, along with a whole host of graduate students over 15 years, used stem cells to create replacement beta cells for mice, and human testing will begin in the next two years with government approval.

National Geographic explains:

"The researchers started with cells taken from a days-old human embryo. At that point, the cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body. Others have tried to make beta cells from these human embryonic stem cells, but never fully succeeded. Melton's team spent a decade testing hundreds of combinations before finally coaxing the stem cells into becoming beta cells."

The procedure can also be done with non-embryonic stem cells, to avoid the sometimes controversial destruction of an embryo. Adult cells are turned back into stem cells and then into beta cells.

The next step is to create a protective coating for these cells so that the body's immune system does not attack the beta cells.

MIT professor Daniel Anderson is helping Melton with a method of protection, which would work like an "inkjet printer" coating the cells with algae that prevents them from being attacked. This device would be implanted into patients. Two other companies are also working on strategies to coat the beta cells.

These beta cells could also be used to treat roughly 10 to 15 percent of people with type 2 diabetes -- those who need insulin shots.

Currently, treatment for type 1 diabetes includes regular shots of insulin, and can only be cured by a beta cell transplant, where beta cells are transplanted from a recently deceased person into the diabetes patient.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Health Innovation Mice Sciecne Stem Cells Type 1 Diabetes