Tel Aviv University researchers have developed a way to cultivate cells derived from insulin-producing beta cells from human tissue in the laboratory, thus paving the way for a potential cure for diabetes.
The researchers believe that it may be possible to implant the new healthy cells into patients with type 1 diabetes.
They say that their approach to replicate the insulin cells people need may ensure that fewer people will die while waiting for a life-saving pancreas and kidney, provided the method proves successful in future research.
Professor Shimon Efrat, who led the study at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine, says that the new approach paves the way for new and alternative forms of treatment in cases in which organ transplantation is not an option.
According to the researcher, this procedure may be as simple as a blood transfusion one day.
In patients with type 1 diabetes, the most severe form of the condition, the patient's immune system stops working properly and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that are needed to produce insulin, thereby inhibiting the breakdown of food into energy.
By the time a diagnosis is made, most beta cells are destroyed beyond repair.
Injections of insulin can ease the symptoms, but some sufferers from the disease eventually require extreme measures like organ transplants to stay alive.
"The shortage of organ donors makes the development of new cell sources for cell therapy critical. Using beta cell expansion, we are able to grow a massive reserve of healthy cells that may be made to produce enough insulin to restore the function of the destroyed cells," says Prof. Efrat.
The researchers have revealed that compared to a previous research that had failed to multiply mouse beta cells in culture, their new work has increased the number of human beta cells successfully.
"In theory, cells from one donor can be multiplied thousands of times," says Prof. Efrat.
He says that his team's next step will be to determine whether these beta cells can be convinced to produce insulin in the human body, and whether the body's immune system will accept the transplanted cells.
As regards the possibility of any human clinical trials, the researcher says that they may not begin for another five years or more.
The research has been published in the journal Diabetes.