Harvard University has, for the first time, managed to manufacture the millions of beta cells required for transplantation.
And it marks the culmination of 23-years of research for Harvard professor Doug Melton who has been trying to find a cure for the disease since his son Sam was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a baby.
“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line,” said Prof Melton.
Asked about his children’s reaction he said: “I think like all kids, they always assumed that if I said I’d do this, I’d do it,
“It was gratifying to know that we can do something that we always thought was possible.”
The stem cell-derived beta cells are presently undergoing trials in animal models, including non-human primates, where they are still producing insulin after several months, Prof Melton said.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin – the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels.
If the amount of glucose in the blood is too high it can seriously damage the body’s organs over time.
While diabetics can keep their glucose levels under general control by injecting insulin, that does not provide the fine tuning necessary to properly control metabolism, which can lead to devastating complications such as blindness or loss of limbs.
Around 10 per cent of all diabetes is Type 1, but it is the most common type of childhood diabetes. 29,000 youngsters suffer in Britain.
The team at Harvard used embryonic stem cells to produce human insulin-producing cells equivalent in almost every way to normally functioning cells in vast quantities.
Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine, University College London, said it was ‘potentially a major medical breakthrough.’
“If this scalable technology is proven to work in both the clinic and in the manufacturing facility, the impact on the treatment of diabetes will be a medical game-changer on a par with antibiotics and bacterial infections,” he said.
Professor Anthony Hollander, Head of Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool, added:“This is very exciting fundamental research that solves a major roadblock in the development of a stem cell treatment for diabetes.
“The study provides a very elegant and convincing method for generating functional insulin-producing cells in large numbers.”
Professor Mark Dunne, at Manchester University, added: Overall this is an important advance for the field of diabetes and people with Type 1 diabetes.”
Professor Elaine Fuchs, of Rockefeller University, described the findings as “one of the most important advances to date in the stem cell field”.
“For decades, researchers have tried to generate human pancreatic beta cells that could be cultured and passaged long term under conditions where they produce insulin.”
A report on the work is published in the journal Cell.