Hand in hand with the nation's obesity epidemic comes a diabetes epidemic. According to the American Diabetes Association
, over 9% of the American population has diabetes, which translates to 30.3 million people. 1.25 million of those suffer from type 1 diabetes. The remainder have type 2 diabetes. Over 25% of American seniors have diabetes, and 1.5 million new cases are diagnosed across the country each year.
The disease has actually become the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, is the primary cause of death for almost 80,000 people per year, although it is connected to the deaths of 252,806 people per year. A great deal has been tried in an attempt to alleviate the impact of this frightening medical condition, from advocacy about the causes of diabetes to programs designed to address lifestyle factors that make it more likely someone will develop the condition.
However, stem cells may hold the most hope for individuals suffering from diabetes.
A Recap on Stem Cells
Not completely sure what stem cells are? You can think of them as "generic" or "original" cells. They're found throughout the human body, although they decrease in number and potency as we age. For this reason, stem cells harvested from adults (your own stem cells, also called autologous) are not the ideal solution.
The truly important thing to understand about stem cells is this - allogeneic stem cells sourced from umbilical cord blood and cord wall tissues can become any type of cell needed, and play a central role in cellular regeneration, growth and healing. This has significant ramifications for diabetics in the US, particularly in conjunction with other new advancements, such as the BioHub. A BioHub is a synthetic organ designed to produce insulin within the bodies of diabetics. According to the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation, "Stem cells hold tremendous potential as a source of insulin-producing cells that could be placed in a BioHub".
The Question of Stem Cell Type
While adult stem cells have been used in the creation of beta cells, they are not ideally suited to this, as mentioned previously. In fact, it is very difficult to isolate beta cell precursors from other cells that make up adult pancreatic tissue. For this reason, young stem cells, such as those found in allogeneic umbilical cord blood and umbilical cord walls, are the preferred type of stem cells.
How Stem Cells Can Treat Diabetes
We've touched on one potential use of stem cells above, but there is more to the story. According to the National Institutes of Health, the discovery of embryonic stem cells in 1998 excited many within the scientific and medical communities with the prospect of a potential effective treatment for type 2 and possibly type 1 diabetes.
Ongoing research in animals, particularly in mice, has shown that using embryonic stem cells engineered to grow into insulin-producing cells reverses the symptoms of diabetes in mice in which those cells had been transplanted. In addition, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh were able to create beta cells that produced insulin in 2004.
Beta cells can be found within the pancreas, and line the organ's tissues next to blood vessels. When exposed to glucose, beta cells produce insulin, which is then released into the bloodstream, ensuring that the body's cells can utilize it as a source of energy.
However, to successfully treat diabetes with stem cells, modern science must move beyond the practice of simply replacing damaged cells with new pancreatic, insulin-producing stem cells. It is similar to the situation with Alzheimer's disease. While stem cells can be used to recreate lost or damaged cells in both diabetics and patients suffering from Alzheimer's, a way to stop the damage from occurring in the first place is necessary. Otherwise, it becomes an ongoing process of replacement - a maintenance method that does not actually address the underlying condition.
There is also the fact that using stem cells in islet cell transplantation (the current method of treating diabetes with stem cells being tested in laboratories) causes a number of complications. For instance, the body eventually may come to see transplanted beta cells as invaders, and attempts to destroy them. To avoid that, the patient's immune system must be suppressed, in much the same way that organ transplant patients must have their immune systems suppressed. This makes them much more susceptible to illnesses and diseases. The risk of such a scenario is greatly reduced or eliminated if umbilical cord and not adult stem cells are used.
Investigating the Cause of Diabetes
While the collection of medical conditions collectively known as diabetes is well understood, the root cause of diabetes is not understood. For this reason, current stem cell treatment for diabetes is largely confined to transplantation of insulin-producing beta cells, with the patient's immune system suppressed by medication (when adult stem cells are used).
The immune system's attack on the beta cells is one of the primary hurdles to achieving a treatment that could be viable for a wide range of patients, and scientists are working on ways to prevent the immune system from destroying those cells without suppressing the system itself. For instance, capsules and other devices are being tested to determine whether they will allow the beta cells to work, while still protecting them from the immune system.
In addition to research into ways to avoid destruction of beta cells by the immune system, scientists continue to study both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in an attempt to better understand the root cause.
However, the use of allogeneic stem cells harvested from donated cord blood or cord wall tissue are immune naïve, meaning they do not trigger the body's immune system, and could provide a more permanent solution for diabetics.
In their quest to better understand the cause of diabetes, scientists are studying a number of other things, including the means of helping beta cells to proliferate within the pancreas, as well as gestational diabetes, which comes on during pregnancy but then vanishes afterward. The study of gestational diabetes and pregnancy in general may help scientists to devise new approaches, techniques and technologies to help ensure islet growth and the permanent establishment of beta cells to produce insulin within a diabetic patient's pancreas.