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Skin Cells may Provide Cure for Diabetes

A recent study revealed the possibility of using skin cells from type 1 diabetes patients as manufacturers of insulin in response to the fast-changing blood sugar levels.

Although skin cells could not be as efficient as normal insulin-producing cells, Julia Greenstein, director of beta cell replacement for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in New York City, claimed that the result is primarily research-related.

They find the possibility of developing a lab model of human type 1 diabetes cells and eventually the discovery of the animal model of the disease. “This finding could lead to a way to replace the islet cells that were destroyed when the disease first developed,” the researchers said.

Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, saw the importance of the study. “Tackling the basic biology of type 1 diabetes, which is a very complex disease, is a critical step. With these cells, we can see in a dish what’s happening to the immune system, and if you don’t understand the immune response, you get nowhere with type 1 diabetes,” she explained. The New York Stem Cell Foundation funded this study.

Meri Firpo, an assistant professor of the Stem Cell Institute in the University of Minnesota, said that this is only the preliminary data. They would still look into and observe the interaction between the immune system cells and insulin-producing cells to find the root cause or trigger, which we think might vary from patient to patient.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-producing islet (beta) cells in the pancreas. Since the body no longer produces its own insulin, people with type 1 diabetes must replace that lost insulin through injections or an insulin pump. The researchers ventured into the possibility that type 1 diabetes patients may have a genetic susceptibility to the disease and that an environmental factor, such as a virus, somehow triggers the disease.

“Normal skin cells are already specialized cells. Their job is to protect the body with a covering of skin,” explained Firpo. Doug Melton and his colleagues reprogram the cell, and the cells were then successfully turned into insulin-producing cells.

Researchers and stem cell advocates in New York envisioned that this technology might also one day be used to create islet cells for transplant from a person’s own skin cells. That way, there would be no need for immunosuppressive medications.

“Our hope is that understanding all of these things will come together —that once we’ve figured out how to make the cell source that we’ll also have figured out how to block the immune response, but there’s a lot of basic science one has to do to get there,” said Greenstein.

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