Stem cells scientist Douglas Melton has made a discovery that he believes could lead to a potential cure for diabetes. In the scientific journal Cell on Thursday, he described a complex procedure involving stem cells, which progressively produces countless pancreatic cells responsible for producing insulin. Insulin is what keeps blood sugar levels balanced.
If Melton’s procedure performs well, it will radically shift the way this disease is being managed. The current method of treatment is insulin injections. Melton is working with bioengineer Daniel Anderson to create an encapsulation device filled with stem cells about the size of a credit card that could be implanted underneath a patient’s skin. This device would secrete insulin after meals and keep blood sugar levels stable.
The Harvard scientist’s firsthand experience with the disease occurred when his six-month old son fell ill and doctors could not figure out what was wrong. The boy was not expected to survive. An astute nurse saved his life when she grabbed a urine test strip and discovered his body was not producing the right amount of insulin. Doctors swiftly moved to bring Melton’s unconscious son back to a stable condition. Approximately a year later, Melton abandoned his tenured position as a biologist experimenting on frogs to begin his quest for a cure for the condition that almost took his son’s life.
The practical applications of this research are still years away. The controversies surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells on humans has created challenging obstacles so far. Mitt Romney called the work unethical and stated the work should be illegal. The biggest concern relates to the idea of reproductive cloning, which Harvard scientists have no plans to attempt due to its horrific nature.
Melton’s team has been using frozen embryos marked for destruction from fertility clinics to perform their research. The nucleus is removed and transplanted with the nucleus of a cell taken from a person diagnosed with diabetes. Scientists hope to learn by observation how the stems cells from the embryo repair the abnormal cells and be able to repeat the process themselves eventually.
Research has moved from being performed on mice at the start to currently being carried out on primates. Senior research scientist Dieter Egli from the New York Stem Cell Foundation plans to repeat Melton’s experiment. Egli’s laboratory team was able to create stem cells from a person who has type 1 diabetes using a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer earlier this year. Egli wants to see how Melton’s process creates these cells. If the process can be stabilized, the research may move to being tested on humans in a few years.
These newest accomplishments in stem cell research are tremendous strides for a potential cure for diabetes. Melton is well aware that patients have been waiting a long time for an alternative treatment, and he is striving hard not to disappoint. If the scientific community is able to stabilize the process effectively, it may open up the doors for a number of other diseases as well.
By Valerie Bordeau
Photo by: bodytel- Flickr