Stem Cell Therapy for Type I Diabetes

Author:  Rashi Venkataraman

Institution:  Carnegie Mellon University
Date:  July 2007

Approximately one in every 400 children suffers from Type 1 Diabetes . However, a team of scientists from the University of Florida recently discovered that blood from the umbilical cord might contain stem cells that can help defeat this debilitating disease.

Type 1 Diabetes is a condition where the body's immune system attacks the pancreatic tissues, rendering them unable to synthesize insulin (a hormone that helps cells take in glucose). As a result, patients suffer from high blood sugar and a slew of other symptoms. One promising way to treat diabetes is to replenish or copy the damaged pancreatic tissue, and it is for this reason that Dr. Michael Haller and his team from the University of Florida's College of Medicine looked to study the use of umbilical cord stem cells in diabetes. As Dr. Haller says, this could potentially "change the course of the natural history of the disease."

Dr. Haller's team attempted to tamper with the stem cells from cord blood so that they would produce insulin. However, finding children that were recently diagnosed was essential to the experiment, because their insulin needs were still minimal. Researchers then prepared 2-7 intravenous infusions of stem cells isolated from the patient's umbilical cord blood (which had been banked at birth). After delivering the infusions to the diagnosed children, evaluations were conducted over two years to assess blood sugar levels and cell function.

It was found that the children required less medicinal insulin and also maintained better control of their blood sugar. Additionally, they had higher levels of regulatory immune cells in their blood, indicating that the procedure was successful. However, Dr. Haller explains that the findings were not a "cure-all." Instead, the delivery of infusions should be regarded as a form of "immunotherapy" that will attempt to "protect what's left of their insulin production for an extended period of time."

Although stem cell research is currently a controversial topic in Washington, Dr. Haller claims that there was no real controversy related to cord blood. Instead, cord blood is essentially a "waste product," but also a "precious resource" that is "increasingly seen as a potential area of study." And although initially surprised with the number of children that had banked their cord blood, Dr. Haller was quick to point out that "not all have the means to do that."

Dr. Haller's research has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of families around the world and may, if successful, lead to new treatments for other forms of diabetes as well.


American Diabetes Association.

- By Rashi Venkataraman.