What if a newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetic could engage in a procedure that would radically improve their prognosis? What if that procedure could make insulin injections unneeded in some cases?
These were questions considered in a study conducted in Brazil as part of an adult stem cell trial. The reported findings are relatively new although the research was conducted over several years.
Twenty-three patients participated in the study. They ranged in age from13-31 and all had been recently diagnosed as Type 1 diabetics.
This therapy is known as autologous nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) and relies on identifying new Type 1 diabetics and beginning the procedure before the majority of insulin producing cells is destroyed. This treatment would not be effective on patients who have been Type 1 for an extended period of time.
The majority of these patients improved. Their body’s were able to produce enough insulin to cease insulin injections for an average of 2.5 years.
WebMD describes the process. “Soon after diagnosis, the patients were given drugs to stimulate production of blood stem cells. The blood stem cells were then removed from the body and frozen.
“Patients were hospitalized and given the toxic drugs that killed their circulating immune cells, and then the harvested blood stem cells were put back into the patient. [Twenty] of the  patients treated with the experimental therapy were able to do without insulin injections or greatly reduce their insulin use for a few months to several years.
“Patients who remained insulin-independent showed significant improvement in their ability to produce insulin two years after treatment, compared to pre-treatment production levels.”
In a Type 1 diabetic the immune system mistakes insulin producing cells for a ‘body invader’ and the immune system begins to kill those cells. In this study harsh immune suppressing drugs are used to keep the body from destroying what insulin producing cells might remain. The introduction of the body’s own stem cells is then used to encourage the body to use the stem cells to create more insulin producing cells.
The immune suppression causes some to consider this a risky procedure. This study’s co-author Richard Burt, MD, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine told WebMD, “I think people will have to judge for themselves if the potential risks of this treatment outweigh the long-term risks associated with type 1 diabetes progression.”
More results from the study can be found in the April 15th, 2009 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Banking on multiple years of follow up with diabetic patients involved in the study researchers are hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will allow a larger study to be conducted to gauge the effectiveness of this adult stem cell therapy.
The side effects remain a concern for those in the medical professional along with their patients, but many will tentatively consider this a breakthrough in potentially treating Type 1 diabetes. This type of diabetes has not been known as one that could be taken care of through diet and exercise alone.
The advances in adult stem cell therapy have been documented in other diabetic studies including one for the saving of lower limbs due to poor circulation. This study provides some additional good news for those engaged in stem cell research as well as the patients who rely on that research.