The researchers reckon that the discovery may one day lead to new treatments or even a cure for the millions of people affected by the disease.
The breakthrough was achieved by reprogramming skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, or cells that can produce any other foetal or adult cell type, and then inducing them to differentiate, or transform, into cells that perform a particular function - in this case, secreting insulin.
Many studies have shown that cells can be returned to pluripotent state using "defined factors" (specific proteins that control which genes are active in a cell), but the current study is the first one to demonstrate that cells reprogrammed in this way can be coaxed to differentiate into insulin-secreting cells.
"Not only have we shown that we can reprogram skin cells, but we have also demonstrated that these reprogrammed cells can be differentiated into insulin-producing cells which hold great therapeutic potential for diabetes," said study lead author Yi Zhang, Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
"Of course, there are many years of additional studies that are required first, but this study provides hope for a cure for all patients with diabetes," said John Buse, M.D., Ph.D., president of the American Diabetes Association.
Diabetes occurs when the body is unable to produce or use insulin properly. Thus, almost all patients with type I diabetes, the more severe of the two types, must rely on daily injections of insulin to maintain their blood sugar levels.
While recent research exploring a possible long-term treatment - the transplantation of insulin-producing beta cells into patients - has yielded promising results, it bears many drawbacks, given the extreme shortage of matched organ donors and the need to suppress patients' immune systems.
The new study, however, could potentially deal the above problems, since insulin-producing cells could be made from diabetic patients' own reprogrammed cells.
Zhang is collaborating with Buse to obtain skin samples from diabetes patients. He said he hoped his current experiments will take this approach one step closer to a new treatment or even a cure for diabetes.
Results of the study are published online in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.