Feb. 5 (UPI) -- A new, effective alternative to pancreas tranplantation may be on the horizon to treat type 1 diabetes, a study says.
In a lab experiment, researchers grew healthy beta cells to transplant into patients without having to wait for a pancreas or islet transplant, a study published this month in Nature Cell Biology.
"We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies," Mattias Hebrok, director of the Diabetes Center at the University of California San Francisco, said in a press release. "This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes."
Type 1 diabetes arises in childhood and kills the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which normally regulates the blood's glucose levels. This blood sugar spike can lead to kidney failure, heart disease, stroke and even death.
Treatment for type 1 diabetes usually requires regular shots of insulin with meals, but often that's not enough. That's when people turn to a pancreas transplant, though there are only 1,000 transplants performed per year.
Now, Hebrok and his team of researchers can convert stem cells to act like healthy pancreatic beta cells. In the experiment, those cells were able to produce insulin when they interacted with blood glucose.
"The cells we and others were producing were getting stuck at an immature stage where they weren't able to respond adequately to blood glucose and secrete insulin properly. It has been a major bottleneck for the field," Hebrok said.
Roughly 1.25 million people have type 1 diabetes in the U.S, according to the American Diabetes Association.
"We're finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us," Hebrok added. "The possibilities seem endless."