There are around 1.25 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes, and another 40,000 are diagnosed each year. These numbers are even greater when Type 2 diabetes is added to the mix. A significant focus has gone into research for Type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body does not produce insulin. One area that may hold hope involves pancreas transplants.
Currently there are more than 76,000 people waiting for transplants in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This is a complex process because it relies on organ donation and the organ must be a match for the recipient. While a pancreas transplant can cure diabetes in some patients, it also comes with risk of rejection and other complications, and there are only so many pancreases available.
Stem cell biologist Hiromitsu Nakauchi from Stanford University School of Medicine is working to alleviate this shortage through the growth of new organs. Nakauchi and his team successfully injected a rat embryo with pluripotent stem cells from a mouse. These are cells that can develop into any type of cell. Since the rat embryo had been modified to not grow a pancreas, these mouse cells developed into a mouse pancreas that could then be transplanted from the rat to the mouse. Not only was it a functioning pancreas, it held the key for treating those with diabetes – it had insulin-secreting islet cells.
Furthermore, the mouse’s immune system was able to eliminate any stray rat cells that came along with the transplanted pancreas thereby greatly decreasing risk of rejection. Rather than prolonged use of immunosuppressive drugs, the mouse only needed these medications for five days following transplant. A year later, the pancreas was still functioning well with no signs of rat cells, tumors, or abnormalities. The mouse’s blood sugar had returned to normal as well.
A Long Road Ahead
This study is by no means an immediate solution. There is still a great deal of research that must be done. The idea is that eventually this technique could be used to grow human organs in larger animals such as pigs or sheep. There are a slew of ethical and medical concerns associated with this process, but it is a step toward advancing potential treatment options for the future.
“… there is a much greater evolutionary distance between humans and pigs or sheep than there is between mice and rats, and this could create challenges,” Nakauchi told Live Science. “So much more research needs to be done to ensure that this approach is both safe and effective.” But this study opens the door for new research and further investigation into the possibility of growing new organs and not only providing a potential cure for Type 1 diabetes, but also giving more people access to life-saving transplants for a variety of organs.
The Diabetes Research Connection stands alongside researchers in their quest to prevent, treat, and cure Type 1 diabetes by providing funding for studies led by early-career scientists. All donations go directly to the scientists and are tax-deductible. Help change the lives of those living with Type 1 diabetes by visiting Diabetes Research Connection to learn more about the cutting-edge research proposals and choose one (or more) to donate toward.