Breakthrough offers promise of diabetes cure

Researchers have announced a scientific breakthrough, which might possibly lead to a cure for Type 1 diabetes mellitus.

Diabetes mellitus is a disorder that results in elevation of the level of sugar in the bloodstream. There are several types of diabetes mellitus, which collectively represents one of the most common chronic diseases in the U.S. To understand the importance of the scientific breakthrough, it is first necessary to understand how diabetes works.

Normally, the hormone insulin is produced in a specialized cell population in the pancreas (an organ in the abdomen) known as beta islet cells. The insulin, in turn, promotes the transport of sugar from the bloodstream into the body’s cells, where it is used as fuel. Pancreatic beta islet cells sense sugar levels and produce insulin to control blood sugar within a fairly tight range.

Diabetes mellitus is the disorder in this system. Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as child-onset diabetes, is the most common chronic disease of childhood. It results from damage to the pancreatic beta islet cells and loss of the body’s capacity to produce insulin. Treatment requires replacement of insulin in the form of daily injections or infusions, typically for a lifetime.

Type 2 diabetes mellitus, formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, results from resistance to insulin at the cellular level, in effect resulting in failure of insulin to carry sugar into the cells. This produces a deprivation of necessary energy to the body’s tissues as well as elevated blood sugar levels.

In both types of diabetes, elevated blood-sugar levels can be toxic to the tissues of the body, including eyes, kidneys, nerves and arteries (just to name a few). For decades, those suffering from Type 1 diabetes mellitus have been dependent on daily insulin doses and close monitoring of blood-sugar levels. If all goes well, this may change in the not-too-distant future.

In early October 2014, a Harvard researcher, Doug Melton, published the results of a study in which he created functioning human pancreatic beta islet cells from human embryonic stem cells.

These cells produced human insulin and, when injected into mice with Type 1 diabetes mellitus, essentially resulted in a cure of the disease. As a result of this breakthrough, researchers may be one step away (human trials) from curing Type 1 diabetes in humans. Since many people with Type 2 diabetes mellitus also require insulin, the new research may offer additional treatment options for them as well.

In effect, the researchers have developed a chemical formula used to coax human stem cells to become insulin-producing cells. It is hoped that the discovery of this formula, when applied to somatic cells (from a fully grown human being and not derived from a destroyed embryo) may produce a similar result.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.