Every year, 70,000 children under the age of 14 are found to have type 1 diabetes and about 440,000 kids deal with the disease every day.
The most common form of diabetes in children 16 years old and younger, type 1 diabetes afflicts suffering kids with blood sugar roller coasters that have to be managed. High blood sugar levels makes them feel fatigued and damages their organs in the long run; low blood sugar levels or hypoglycemia makes them blackout and brings seizures that require emergency treatment.
Currently, there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. A lifelong disease, people who have it simply have to learn to manage it.
When not managed properly, the disease will stunt growth, and kids who get diabetes very early in life develop structural brain abnormalities and retardation when their nervous systems are exposed to severe hypoglycemia. Diabetes is also the leading cause of blindness, amputation and kidney failure, the World Health Organization says.
Type 1 diabetes is deadly because it affects the way the body uses glucose, the main type of sugar in the blood, which comes from the food we eat.
After we eat, our bodies break food down into glucose and other nutrients, which are absorbed by the blood from the gastrointestinal tract. Glucose levels in the blood rise after a meal, triggering the pancreas to make the hormone insulin and release it into the bloodstream. Insulin then works like a “key” that controls glucose blood levels, “opening” or “shutting” the “doors” to cells to allows or disallow the entry of glucose.
But in type 1 diabetes, a person’s own immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the insulin-producing (beta) cells in the pancreas, which then lose their ability to make insulin.
Because their beta cells don’t produce enough or any insulin, kids and teens with type 1 diabetes have to replace this and are forced to depend on a daily insulin injection or an insulin pump to control their blood glucose levels. Without these, people with type 1 diabetes would die.
“Re-educating” impaired cells to halt the attack
Stopping the autoimmune attack on the pancreas appears to be crucial to any treatment that hopes to cure or reverse type 1 diabetes. And that’s just what a team from the University of Illinois seems to have done in a recent study.
In a new, experimental stem cell treatment for people with type 1 diabetes, impaired immune system cells are “taught” how to stop attacking the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, allowing it to start producing insulin again.
The new research found that treating a type 1 diabetic’s T-cells with stem cells taken from human cord blood helps restart the pancreatic function and insulin production. Cord blood is the blood taken from the umbilical cord or placenta of a newborn baby. Stem cells and other products are derived from it.
In the treatment, a patient’s immune system cells are combined with stem cells from a donor’s cord blood—and the cord blood stem cells seem to “re-educate” the patients’ T-cells to stop attacking the pancreas cells. The donor is not biologically related to the patient as cord blood cells come from a cord blood bank.
Because lymphocytes exposed to stem cells seem to relearn how they should behave, the researchers have dubbed their treatment “Stem Cell Educator Therapy.” Their work is published in the Jan. 9 issue of the open-access journal BMC Medicine.
Researchers also found the treatment worked even in people with long-standing diabetes who were once believed to have no insulin-producing ability.
The experimental treatment didn’t wean patients off insulin completely, but average blood sugar levels dropped significantly, reducing the risk of long-term health complications.