Diabetes researchers say they have made a breakthrough that could pave the way to eliminating the need for daily insulin injections.
- The Monash University team was able to get pancreatic cells to produce insulin
- If the research leads to animal studies then clinical trials, it could reduce the need for insulin injections
- It could be a “game changer” in treatment for the chronic disease, an independent researcher says
The Monash University research, published in the Nature journal Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy, could lead to the regeneration of insulin in pancreatic stem cells.
Insulin is a hormone, made by what are known as beta cells in the pancreas, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels.
Broadly, people with diabetes do not naturally produce enough insulin, or their bodies do not use the hormone as they should. The beta cells in many people with diabetes are unable to produce insulin at all.
“There are different forms of diabetes and it’s a disease that requires relentless attention,” said Keith Al-Hasani, a Monash University researcher and one of the study’s authors.
Type 1 diabetes generally first presents when patients are children, which Dr Al-Hasani said often meant up to five insulin injections per day as young people adjusted to the disease. Adult sufferers can administer up to 100 shots a month to manage the illness.
After the death of a 13-year-old with type 1 diabetes, the researchers studied donated pancreatic cells and used a compound to trigger insulin production.
“We’re reprogramming cells that don’t generally produce insulin, to express insulin now,” researcher and study co-author Ishant Khurana said.
The compound GSK126 is approved for use to treat another condition by the US Food and Drug Administration, but has not been used for diabetes treatment in Australia or elsewhere.
While the researchers studied stem cells, they did not genetically alter the cells to get their results.
The authors acknowledged there was still a long way to go before the potential treatment could be used in humans.
They next want to collect more pancreatic cell samples from a bigger range of people, then move to animal trials before possibly beginning human clinical trials.
The end goal, Dr Khurana said, was to eliminate the need for daily injections and pancreatic transplants.
It would affect most people with Type 1 diabetes, and the about 30 per cent of people with Type 2 diabetes who are insulin dependent.
According to Diabetes Australia, about 1.8 million Australians have diabetes and it is the fastest-growing illness in the country. About 500 million have the disease worldwide.
Simon McCrudden, 46, has been administering his own insulin since he was seven years old and said removing the burden of daily injections would be “massive”.
“I’d have to re-learn just how to just do daily life, but it’d be great,” he said.
Associate professor Neale Cohen, the director of diabetes clinical research at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, said the Monash research was still in its early days but showed great potential.
“There are a number of attempts to find ways of replacing beta cells, which are all tremendously important. And if that is possible, what it would mean it would be a cure for people with Type 1 diabetes,” he said.
Dr Cohen, who was not involved in the study, said research over a number of decades had found “it seems to be remarkably difficult to reprogram cells to become insulin-producing cells.
“People will no longer need to inject insulin, and they won’t have the burden of this chronic illness.”