Promising new research by US scientists has shown the potential for brain stem cells to be used to cure diabetes. The work by Stanford University researchers, though not yet ready to be tested on human patients, has shown promising results in animals.
Dr Seung Kim and colleagues were able to coax the immature brain cells to develop into the insulin-producing islet cells that are lacking in diabetes which they say could be used for curative transplants.
Scientists have already been looking at using stem cells taken from embryos to treat diabetes as these are primitive "master" cells that can be programmed to become many kinds of tissue.
But there are concerns that these cells can turn cancerous and are difficult to work with in the laboratory, which convinced Dr Seung Kim and colleagues to examine whether stem cells taken from the brain might work just as well and avoid some of these issues.
Dr Kim says islet cells resemble neurons, and in some insects, such as fruit flies, the cells that produce insulin and regulate blood sugar are also neurons. The team found that when they added a cocktail of chemicals to brain stem cells, taken from aborted foetuses, the cells changed and, although they were not identical to islet cells, they were able to produce insulin in response to blood sugar levels.
To check whether these cells would work, they transplanted them into a cavity in the kidney in mice where other types of insulin-producing cells have been found to survive before and when the blood sugar went up in these mice, the transplanted "mature" brain stem cells again released insulin. The cells were still alive four weeks later and still producing insulin, none had turned cancerous.
Dr Kim said, although it was early days, the work suggested that stem cells could be used to replace islet cells and free people with type 1 diabetes daily insulin injections.
Some patients have already received transplants using islet cells taken from living relatives or dead donors.
Dr Angela Wilson, director of research at Diabetes UK says the results are interesting and may provide another avenue to explore in the search for a cure for diabetes but the work is in the very early stages of development and has yet to be reproduced in humans.
They will be following the progress of the research with interest.