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Latest stem cell research “should not be overstated”

Some people with Type 1 diabetes who received an experimental stem-cell treatment have been able to go for up to four years without needing insulin, researchers claimed yesterday. However, Diabetes UK says much more research is needed.

In a small study, some people with Type 1 diabetes given a transplant of stem cells made from their own bone marrow appeared to start to producing their own insulin.

Findings from the study

Dr Richard Burt of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, said that 20 of the 23 study participants experienced time free from insulin. One participant had more than four years with no insulin injections, four participants for at least three years, three for at least two years, and four for at least one year. Eight participants relapsed and resumed insulin injections.

To find out if the change was lasting, the research team measured C-peptide levels, a marker that shows how well the body is producing insulin. They found levels increased up to 24 months after experimental treatment and were maintained until at least 36 months.

Potential drawback

A potential drawback is that it is likely to work only within six weeks of the diagnosis of diabetes, before the immune system has destroyed all the body’s own islet cells.

Not a cure for Type 1 diabetes

Dr Iain Frame, Diabetes UK’s Director of Research, warned: “Preliminary findings from this small study were reported in 2007. Although this remains an interesting area of research, the importance of a limited extension to this study should not be overstated - this is not a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

"As we said in 2007, we would like to see this experiment carried out with a control group for comparison of results and a longer-term follow-up in a greater number of people.

“It is important that the researchers look at the causes of the apparent improvement in insulin production and C-peptide levels in some participants. In particular, it is crucial to find out whether this is associated with the timing of the treatment or possible side effects of it, rather than the stem cell transplant itself.

“It would be wrong to unnecessarily raise the hopes of people living with diabetes about a new treatment for the condition on the back of the evidence provided in this study.”

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