Health Team

Stem Cells Could Treat Juvenile Diabetes

Posted April 10, 2007 2:26 p.m. EDT
Updated April 10, 2007 6:17 p.m. EDT

One way those stem cells may prove useful is in the fight against diabetes, freeing some patients from the need for insulin or other medications.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a stem cell transplant might be the key to freedom for many newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetics.

"These are not embryonic stem cells. These are your own circulating blood stem cells from the patient themselves," said Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University.

People with diabetes have faulty immune systems that destroy islet cells in the pancreas. In a Brazilian study with 15 patients, doctors removed the patients' own stem cells from their blood and froze them. Chemotherapy weakened the patients' immune system so they would be more receptive to the fresh stem cells, and in all one but one of the patients, the new immune system stopped destroying islet cells.

"This is the first time in the history of diabetes that patients have gone an interval, an interval up to three years and perhaps longer -- only time will tell -- requiring no treatment, no insulin, no immune suppression, no medications at all," Burt said.

Researchers said the procedure might work only for patients recently diagnosed with diabetes because they still have islet cells left in the pancreas.

Kim Black, 15, has struggled with diabetes since she was 5. She has an insulin pump implanted in her side to give her medication about five times a day.

"I have to think about it 24/7, all the time, like when I'm going to eat next, where I'm going and if I have to bring a test kit, and how much insulin I have to give myself and everything," Black said.

The idea of undergoing stem cell treatment to cure her diabetes is like a dream to her, she said.

"I don't know what it's like to live without Type 1 diabetes," she said.