Researchers in China say they have cured diabetes for the first time.

The patient, a 59-year-old man, received a pioneering cell transplant in 2021 and has been medication-free since 2022.

The experimental treatment involved creating an artificial version of cells found in the pancreas that produce insulin and keep blood sugar levels in check.

The man had suffered from type 2 diabetes for 25 years and had lost almost all function of these cells, known as islets.

He was deemed high risk of deadly complications, requiring multiple insulin injections every day to prevent him from going into a diabetic coma.

The pancreas is an organ which, amongst other functions, produces insulin. Insulin is a natural hormone that our body uses to control the amount of sugar in our blood stream. People with diabetes have trouble regulating their blood sugar because of pancreatic dysfunction.

The pancreas is an organ which, amongst other functions, produces insulin. Insulin is a natural hormone that our body uses to control the amount of sugar in our blood stream. People with diabetes have trouble regulating their blood sugar because of pancreatic dysfunction. 

People with diabetes often use blood sugar monitors, like this one pictured, to determine how much sugar is currently circulating in their blood stream. This helps them decide what to eat and when to use insulin to best manage their disease.

People with diabetes often use blood sugar monitors, like this one pictured, to determine how much sugar is currently circulating in their blood stream. This helps them decide what to eat and when to use insulin to best manage their disease. 

Up to this point, no one has ever been ‘cured’ of diabetes, but doctors have figured out how to put it into remission.

But this requires patients to keep up a relatively strict diet and exercise program to stop the blood sugar problems returning. 

However, the case in China suggests it’s possible to restore the body’s ability to naturally regulate blood-sugar without a patient changing their lifestyle.

The treatment used stem cells, which are a blank-slate kind of cell that can be turned into the many different types of cells the body needs to function. 

Under the right conditions, stem cells can turn into brain, muscle, kidney or even pancreas tissue.

This treatment used a new chemical cocktail to turn the patient’s stem cells into pancreas cells. 

These cells produce insulin, which tells your body when to pull sugar from the food we eat for energy. 

In diabetics, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar. Too much or too little sugar in the blood can cause nerve damage, kidney damage, heart disease and more. 

By implanting the new, lab-grown cells, which can produce insulin, the patient could begin producing their own insulin again, researchers suggest.

This is what doctors have observed in the Chinese patient. 

‘I think this study represents an important advance in the field of cell therapy for diabetes,’ Timothy Kieffer, a professor of cellular and physiological sciences at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved with the research, told South China Morning Post

Though this finding is encouraging, there’s still a ways to go before it can be approved for the masses. 

Next, scientists will have to test their therapy in more patients.

After they test it in more people, Professor Kieffer said, they’ll need to find a way to scale up their operation.

Currently, turning blank ‘seed cells’ into functioning pancreas cells is incredibly intricate, time-consuming and expensive. Scientists will have to make the process easier if it’s going to be feasible for most people. 

There is a chance it might only work to treat type 2 diabetes, which is the more common form of the disease. 

Type 1 diabetics, whose pancreas has been attacked by the immune system, might have a harder time using this treatment because their immune system might reject the new implanted cells, the study authors wrote.

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Regardless of all the hurdles still left to cross, this could be a huge step forward for the 38.4 million Americans currently living with diabetes and the 97.6 million who will likely go on to develop the disease. 

It’s the eighth leading cause of death in the country. 

This paper, which was published in the journal Cell Discovery is the result of decades of research, across many countries, into how best to turn stem cells into islet cells, and how to get those islet cells into the body. 

‘Our technology has matured and it has pushed boundaries in the field of regenerative medicine for the treatment of diabetes,’ Dr Yin Hao, one of the lead researchers said.

The study was a collaboration between three institutions based in Shanghai -the Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, the Centre for Excellence in Molecular Cell Science under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Renji Hospital.

 In the future, Professor Kieffer said this therapy may, ‘free patients from the burden of chronic medications, improve health and quality of life, and reduce healthcare expenditures.’

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