When most people talk about diabetes, they’re usually referring to type 2. That’s because it’s the most prevalent form of the condition, with 90-95% of U.S. adults with diabetes dealing with it. However, the other 5-10% of individuals with diabetes have type 1, which is just as important.

While it would be unfair to argue that one form of diabetes is worse than the other, it is fair to say that type 2 diabetes is more manageable. With the latter, interventions such as weight loss, dietary changes, exercise, medications, and insulin can make a positive difference. However, there is only one form of treatment for type 1 diabetes currently, and that’s insulin replacement.

Because there are limited treatment options, researchers have been looking for new ways to help individuals with type 1 diabetes, and stem cell therapy seems to be a promising solution. Keep reading to learn how stem cell therapy may be the best thing since sliced bread for individuals with type 1 diabetes.

How Stem Cell Therapy Works

Stem cells, which are early-stage raw cells made in the bone marrow, have the ability to become different types of cells in the body. To date, they have been used to treat a wide range of blood cancers, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and various other autoimmune conditions. Therefore, it only makes sense for type 1 diabetes to be a part of this list as well.

There are numerous reasons why researchers are looking to stem cells to help treat a wide range of illnesses. First, stem cells can multiply at a dramatic rate, and this quick multiplication can aid in the disease-fighting process. Second, because stem cells are undifferentiated cells, once they are transplanted, they can evolve into the type of cell that a patient is most in need of. For some patients, this may be white blood cells; for others, it could be platelets or red blood cells.

For many patients, stem cells are often harvested directly from them. They can be collected either directly from the patient’s blood or bone marrow after a conditioning process that often includes knocking down their immune system. Individuals may also receive allogeneic stem cell transplants, meaning that the stem cells are donated by another person. Often, these allogenic transplants come from a relative following an intensive matching process. Different patients may need different types of stem cells depending on their diagnosis and disease course.

Stem Cell Therapy: Understanding Type 1 Diabetes With Mice

Type 1 diabetes is a particularly challenging disease to study in humans, so most studies have utilized animals. This is because by the time doctors diagnose a patient with diabetes, their insulin-producing beta cells have been destroyed. As a result, those cells cannot be further researched, so we remain in the dark regarding what caused this to happen in the first place. Fortunately, stem cells may be able to provide us with the answers we’re looking for.

The Harvard Stem Cell Institute is using the science of stem cell therapy and transplantation to enhance their understanding of how the autoimmune process happens in mice with induced type 1 diabetes. To do this, they’ll take a skin cell from a patient with type 1 diabetes and reprogram it into induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells are genetically identical to the original patient and can be used to produce an array of diseased cells.

As a result, the researchers will produce three types of cells that they’ll be injected into the mice. Those cells include human beta cells (the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas), cells that kill beta cells, and thymus cells. Once injected, those mice will then be studied to see how the disease process evolves and if every mouse that receives diseased cells develops diabetes.

The scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute believe that by better understanding the genesis of the disease, they will be able to target therapy to disrupt the disease process at earlier and earlier stages. This research is still at its earliest stages, and the scientists acknowledge that it may take years to develop potential real-world applications for the newfound knowledge.

A New Advancement in Stem Cell Therapy For Type 1 Diabetes

Although type 1 diabetes is difficult to study in humans, technology has advanced to a point where it’s become very much possible. And thanks to this advancement, we’re on the verge of solving a huge issue that occurs amongst many patients with type 1 diabetes.

Over time, individuals with diabetes risk becoming less sensitive to noticing fluctuations in their blood sugar and possibly experiencing hypoglycemic episodes. Hypoglycemia happens when a person’s blood sugar level drops below 70 mg/dL. These low blood sugar levels can lead to a range of symptoms, from dizziness and anxiety to fainting, severe confusion, and even seizures.

In order to overcome and/or better manage this problem, a human clinical trial has been initiated by a biotechnology company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated, to assess the safety, tolerability, and efficacy of VX-880. This clinical trial began in 2021 and may not be fully complete until 2028, as they want to closely monitor the study’s 17 participants over the next several years.

In order to participate in the study, the participants must have:

  • A 5+ year clinical history of type 1 diabetes
  • At least two episodes of documented severe hypoglycemia in the 12 months before enrollment
  • Stable diabetic treatment and
  • Consistent use of a continuous glucose monitor for at least three months before screening

How Is VX-880 Performing?

Recently, preliminary results for the ongoing clinical trial of VX-880 were released. VX-880 infusions are based on pancreatic islet cells developed from stem cells. Interestingly, these islet cells are the very ones that are attacked in type 1 diabetes.

So far, the results from this clinical trial have been promising. The current outcomes suggest that the patients who used VX-880 had more time with their insulin in the targeted range and had a decreased need for insulin injections.

In fact, two patients who received the treatment for a full 12 months were insulin independent at the end of the treatment. These patients showed a marked decrease in their HbA1c levels. One patient went from 8.6% at the beginning of the study to 5.3% at the 21-month mark. The second patient showed a 1.6 percent drop in HbA1c levels during the same time period. Equally impressively, these two patients had blood glucose levels in the targeted range more than 95% of the time during the study.

However, some cautionary notes need to be thrown up. First, the study only includes 17 people, and only six have been assessed so far, which makes it hard to draw sweeping conclusions about a broader patient population.  Also, only two patients were included in the year-long study. Second, given that this study is relatively new and very small, it is challenging to draw informed conclusions about any safety implications or long-term efficacy.

Yet, despite these caveats, many scientists and medical professionals are optimistic. They think this medication may benefit long-term type 1 diabetes patients. Although the study is small, all six patients have shown endogenous insulin secretion, better glycemic control, reduced exogenous insulin use, and improved insulin use so far.

Research into VX-880 is ongoing. However, it represents a likely breakthrough in a new, non-insulin-based approach to treating type 2 diabetes.

The Future of Stem Cells For Diabetes Treatment is Promising

Even though the VX-880 clinical trial is still relatively new, the results to date show tremendous potential. If these findings reveal that stem cell therapy can be used to treat type 1 diabetes instead of daily insulin injections, many of the barriers and complications often associated with the condition may be reduced or eliminated. It’ll be exciting to see what comes of the study as it expands to new sites and progresses.