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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 11:56 GMT
Diabetes reversed in the lab
Lab mice
Diabetes has been reversed in laboratory mice
Scientists have made a breakthrough that promises a potential cure for childhood diabetes.

They have used stem cells - immature cells that have yet to develop a distinct character - to stimulate the production of the hormone insulin in sufficient quantity to reverse diabetes in mice.

Diabetes affects around 5% of the population. It is estimated that 100,000 children suffer from juvenile diabetes in the UK.

This is very exciting, because the cells can be placed very simply into an individual in an area with no need for a complicated surgical procedure

Professor Ammon Peck, University of Florida
Type-1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas produces insufficient amounts of insulin - needed to convert glucose in the cells into energy.

This is caused by a fault in the immune system which turns against the insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells and destroys them.

Researchers have tried for two decades to combat the disease by perfecting a technique to transplant pancreatic islet cells into diabetes sufferers.

However, the clinical success of islet transplants has been less than 20%, due to the difficulty in obtaining large enough numbers of purified islets.

A team from the University of Florida has finally developed a way to grow large numbers of islet cells.

They did this culturing a particular type of stem cell known as a pluripotent pancreatic ductal epithelial cell from diabetic adult mice.

When these cultured islet cells were transplanted into diabetic mice, they evolved into small, insulin-secreting organs known as islets of Langerhans, which can produce enough insulin to cure the diabetes.

Very exciting research

Lead researcher Professor Ammon Peck, an immunologist, said: "This is very exciting, because the cells can be placed very simply into an individual in an area with no need for a complicated surgical procedure."

But he added: "Obviously there are still a number of hurdles we have to overcome and a lot of theoretical questions we have to have answers to before we would begin implanting the cells in humans."

Professor Peck said scientists were attempting to duplicate the study using human cells.

They hope to begin implantation in primates soon, which would pave the way for eventual human trials.

Islet stem cells currently are obtained from human organ donors.

A spokeswoman for the British Diabetic Association said: "This is a very interesting area of research which could have far-reaching implications for people with diabetes.

"However, this research is still in its very early stages, and even if successful, will take many years to bring benefits to those living with the condition."

The BDA's caution was echoed by Dr Matthew Kiln, a south London GP and joint chairman of the Insulin Dependent Diabetes Trust.

He said: "This sounds nice in theory, but in practice it may not work."

Diabetes can cause damage to blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure and poor circulation to the lower limbs.

The research is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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See also:

14 May 99 |  Health
Diabetes vaccine hope
09 Feb 99 |  Medical notes
Diabetes: The facts
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