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Researchers Use Stem Cell Therapy to Wean Diabetics From Insulin


An international team of researchers has used the stem cells taken from the blood of diabetic patients to enable them to eliminate the need for insulin medication. The scientists say the research has the potential to cure Type 1, or juvenile diabetes, which afflicts millions of people who have to have daily shots of insulin. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

So-called juvenile diabetes makes up five to 10 percent of all cases of diabetes. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the pancreas, the organ that makes insulin-producing cells that regulate the amount of sugar in the blood.

When the pancreas is not working properly and it fails to control blood sugar levels, there can be serious complications later in life, such as blindness and kidney failure.

By the time most Type 1 diabetics are diagnosed, experts say half or more of their insulin-producing cells have been destroyed.

U.S. and Brazilian researchers hoping to salvage the surviving cell mass conducted a study in which they used high doses of drugs to suppress the immune system of 15 patients and then infused them with the stem cells taken from their blood.

The goal was to reprogram the faulty immune system to halt its attack.

Study co-author Richard Burt of Northwestern University in Chicago says, as of February, one patient has been completely insulin free for 35 months, four for at least 21 months and seven for at least six months. Two patients responded late and were insulin-free for one and five months.

Burt says the results are remarkable.

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

The study was conducted in Brazil and the results are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Kim is a teenager who has juvenile diabetes.

"I have to think about it like 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," she said.

Kim says she wishes she could find out what it is like not to have diabetes.

Even though it was a small study, observers say the research is likely to be the first of many efforts now to develop a therapy to free diabetics from the need for insulin shots.

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