Many people who suffer from diabetes, one of the most common diseases in the world, have to endure daily injections of insulin, but a new treatment could allow some patients to forgo those self-injected shots for several months or even years.
"That's the first time in the treatment of diabetes that after one intervention people are on no medications whatsoever," says Dr. Richard Burt, of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
He says the treatment begins by drawing blood from a diabetes patient. Stem cells in the blood - cells which can transform into almost any other type of cell - are chemically prodded to become insulin producers. Then they are re-injected into the patient. Burt notes that this approach removes the usual risk of transplant rejection.
"It's your own stem cell. There's no risk of it being rejected, because it's yours to begin with," he explains.
It has been 20 years since Burt first imagined the idea of treating diabetes with stem cells from a patient's own blood. Several years ago, working with Brazilian doctors, he used the technique on about two dozen patients who had early stage diabetes. Twenty of them were able to manage their blood sugar levels without injecting insulin or taking any other medication for one year or longer. One patient needed no insulin for more than four years.
Burt says while the results have been very encouraging, he knows the process of approving stem cell transplantation as a standard treatment for diabetes is long and arduous.
"The next step is a randomized trial, and that randomized trial is approved now at Northwestern, and it's at the FDA. We're awaiting FDA approval. Once we get that, we'll get that started here."
A paper describing the stem cell transplantation technique for diabetes is published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.