Neural stem cell transplants may improve type 1 diabetes treatments

Transplanting a patient's neural stem cells to their pancreas may be a viable treatment for type 1 diabetes, according to a new study from a team of Japanese researchers.

Cell transplantation has long been viewed as a potential treatment for the condition. However, this idea largely rested upon taking pancreatic tissue from healthy individuals and giving it to those with type 1 diabetes. This has not proven to be a viable treatment because there is a shortage of healthy, available pancreatic tissue and the body often rejects cells from foreign sources.

Using a patient's own neural stem cells could overcome these issues. These cells are prevalent in the brain and the body will not reject them. Once they have been implanted in the pancreas they generally develop into insulin-producing beta cells.

A team of researchers from the AIST Institute in Tsukuba, Japan tested the method in laboratory mice that were bred to have deficient levels of beta cells. The team harvested neural stem cells from the animals' hippocampus and olfactor bulb, two locations that are replete with the tissue.

The researchers reported in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine that once these cells were transplanted to the mice's pancreases they began expressing characteristics of beta cells. Additionally, insulin production increased and blood sugar levels normalized.

"The discovery of stem cells which have virtually unlimited self-renewal raises great expectations for their use in regenerative medicine. The isolation and cultivation of stem cells as a renewable source of beta cells would be a major breakthrough," the researchers wrote in their report.

The findings could have great potential for improving the treatment of type 1 diabetes. The condition is caused by the destruction of beta cells by the body's own immune system. Since these cells do not regenerate on their own, patients with the condition are left dependent on insulin for the rest of their lives. Many people find this burdensome.

However, the findings suggest that it may be possible to allow individuals to start producing their own insulin again and become independent of the need for injections. Aside from the lifestyle improvements this may bring, it could also benefit blood sugar regulation and overall health. This would mark a major advancement in type 1 diabetes treatments.