Researchers from Johnson & Johnson and biotech partner ViaCyte hope to treat Type 1 diabetes in several years and Type 2 diabetes soon after that. Their current research project involving embryonic stem cells is ambitious, but one scientists believe could lead to a cure.
"This one is potentially the real deal," said Dr. Tom Donner, director of the diabetes center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to ABC Channel 9 News. "It's like making a new pancreas that makes all the hormones" needed to control blood sugar.
"The stem cell treatment has had success in animals but has yet to be tested on patients."
In past research projects, scientists have tried introducing new substances in the body to treat diabetes, but the sufferers' immune systems have always rejected them. In this new study, scientists place embryonic stem cells in a Petri dish and provoke them to turn into insulin-producing cells. They would then place these cells into a small capsule to protect them from the body's immune system, then place it under the person's skin.
The stem cell treatment has had success in animals but has yet to be tested on patients. It would be the first project of its kind to do so.
Researchers at MIT's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, in collaboration with scientists at Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI), created the implantable device which can last up to six months. Doug Melton, HSCI co-director, praised the work of his fellow doctors for overcoming what he called a "major hurdle" in treating Type 1 diabetes.
"This report is an important step forward, in an animal model, because it shows that there may be a way to overcome one of the major hurdles that have stood in the way of a cure for Type 1 diabetes," said Melton, according to the Harvard Gazzette. "Now, thanks to the outstanding work of Dan Anderson and Bob Langer at MIT, Gordon Weir at the Joslin Diabetes Center and HSCI, and Dale Greiner at the University of Massachusetts, and our other essential collaborators, we have stem cell-derived beta cells that can provide insulin in a device that appears capable of protecting them from immune attack."
About 27 million people have Type 2 diabetes and 1 million have Type 1 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Another 86 million have prediabetes, which means that their glucose levels are not normal, but not high enough to be diabetes yet. While there is no cure yet, Diego Miralles, J&J's head of global innovation believes that the two companies could be close.
"We wanted to hedge our bets to make sure we would win in this space…that is so transformational," Miralles said, according to the Associated Press.
Johnson & Johnson has been a major ViaCyte investor for the last 13 years.