Stem Cell

First implants of stem-cell pouches to ‘cure’ type 1 diabetes

Stem cell cultures

Lewis Houghton/Science Photo Library

Stem cells have been cultured to treat many different of conditions

Last week, two people with type 1 diabetes became the first to receive implants containing cells generated from embryonic stem cells to treat their condition. The hope is that when blood sugar levels rise, the implants will release insulin to restore them to normal.

About 10 per cent of the 422 million people who have diabetes worldwide have type 1 diabetes, which is caused by the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking cells in the pancreas that make insulin. For more than 15 years, researchers have been trying to find a way to use stem cells to replace these, but there have been several hurdles – not least, how to get the cells to work in the body.

Viacyte, a company in San Diego, California, is trying a way to get round this. The firm’s thumbnail-sized implant, called PEC-Direct, contain cells derived from stem cells that can mature inside the body into the specialised islet cells that get destroyed in type 1 diabetes.

The implant sits just below the skin, in the forearm, for example, and is intended to automatically compensate for the missing islet cells, releasing insulin when blood sugar levels get too high.

“If it works, we would call it a functional cure,” says Paul Laikind, of Viacyte. “It’s not truly a cure because we wouldn’t address the autoimmune cause of the disease, but…