Researchers in Brazil and the U.S. have conducted an experiment which shows that stem cells can "re-set" the immune systems of diabetes patients.
The scientists from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Northwestern University in Chicago first used drugs to destroy the bone marrow in 15 newly diagnosed diabetic patients, in effect, removing their immune systems.
They then filtered out adult stem cells from the blood of the patients called hematopoietic stem cells, which give rise to the white blood immune system cells and simply injected each patient with a mixture of his or her own stem cells.
This method is called autologous nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
Of the group of 15 patients 14 were able to live for months and in some cases even years without insulin.
The researchers say that while the treatment does not represent a cure for the disease it does show that it may be possible to at least interrupt the mistaken immune response that destroys insulin-producing cells in type-1 diabetes.
The researchers are conscious that their discovery will inevitably give rise to controversy but hope it will also generate interest and excitement.
An estimated 5 to 10 percent of the 20 million Americans with diabetes are affected by type-1 diabetes which is also called juvenile diabetes; it is often found in children and differs from the more common type-2 diabetes that is linked with obesity, poor diet and a lack of exercise.
Type-1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease which results from the mistaken destruction of the so-called islet cells in the pancreas that create insulin, and sufferers must almost always take insulin daily to control their blood sugar levels.
Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University and Dr. Julio Voltarelli of the University of Sao Paulo chose to work with 15 adults newly diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.
Initially the experiment failed in the first patient because they used steroids; the next 14 were successful as they eliminated the steroids.
The researchers say in their report that 93 percent of patients achieved different periods of insulin independence and treatment-related toxicity was low, with no mortality.
The only severe adverse effects were pneumonia in one patient and endocrine dysfunction in two others.
The team believe the treatment re-set the immune systems of the patients, stopping, at least temporarily, the onslaught on the pancreatic islet cells and allowing some of them to regenerate and produce insulin on their own.
As yet the research is in the preliminary stage and the researchers have no hard evidence as they have not tested this by examining the pancreases of the patients.
However 14 patients became insulin-free, one for nearly three years, four for two years and others for at least several months.
Other research is being carried out in this field and experts are optimistic that cell transplants will in future be used to treat diabetes.
The report is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.