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Diabetes is a hardship. No one would refute that. You have to stab yourself all the time, watch uncomfortably as you pump fluids into yourself and constantly monitor your insulin levels, lest you pass out and possibly die. Yep, diabetes sucks. But, diabetes may soon be a thing of the past. You heard me right: scientists are now closer to an all-out cure for the insulin-deficient disease (the type 1 variant of it, at least) than ever before, due to substantial progress in stem cell research. Okay, I know the words “stem cell research” are going to leave a sour taste in a lot of your brains from the controversy associated with them over the years. Well, you can stop conjuring up images of Frankenstein’s monster crawling out of a test tube. By the end of this, you too will be convinced that stem cell research can be used for some truly amazing things.
Let’s take a step back
To understand what these scientists have done, we first have to have a little recap on some high-school level biology. Don’t worry, it’s not going to be as brain-numbing as you remember. We have to cover two things: some pretty neat little things known as beta cells, and how they fit into the endocrine system. Those are the only spooky science words in this whole thing, so you can relax. Beta cells are cells in your pancreas that react to glucose by spitting out insulin as they simultaneously produce more. Simple enough? These cells are part of your “endocrine system,” which is basically a hormonal postal system that runs about as slow as USPS eBay shipping. That’s perfectly fine though: the processes it regulates (from puberty to, you guessed it, blood sugar) don’t require knee-jerk reaction speeds. These beta cells are the key factor when it comes to your body’s ability to stabilize your blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes is caused by the overactive immune systems in certain people destroying them, and thus, they have to get their insulin externally.
So, now that you know what causes type 1 diabetes, what’s new in regards to treating it? Well, way back in 2009 (that’s ten years ago now, believe it or not), scientists were interested in how these cells form within the pancreas to begin with. Like any rational person, they set up some good old-fashioned test tube babies and got to work. Okay, relax, they were just embryos (all of which were donated by the parents for research purposes). Anyway, they closely tracked the development of the pancreas in these embryos (referred to as “endocrine cell clustering” in the original study) and compiled an extensive description of the process. What resulted was valuable knowledge of how our bodies produce these beta cells; knowledge that, prior to this study, had yet to be discovered and understood. As you’re about to find out, this information is wildly useful.
The secret stem cell sauce
Due to this information surfacing, it was only a matter of time before somebody asked that crucial question: “How do we recreate this artificially?” And that’s just the question that a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego asked themselves. Using the blueprints laid out by the research from ten years ago, the team successfully found a way to recapitulate (deep breaths, that’s just science-ese for “recreate the generation of”) the endocrine cell clustering from a human fetus using stem cells. That’s right: they’ve grown beta cells that are perfectly capable of producing insulin in response to glucose, just like our bodies make them. And as is the tradition in the scientific community when it comes to biological experiments, they shot the potentially unstable little suckers into unsuspecting lab mice in the hopes that they wouldn’t all immediately die. Well, wouldn’t you know it: the cells worked perfectly! The trick was to mimic the fetal development of the cells in relation to the pancreas. Naturally, the cells actually separate from the pancreas and form clusters known as “pancreatic islets.” This was a detail that, until now, was widely overlooked. Once this structure was recreated in a Petri dish, voila: perfectly mature beta cells.
A discovery such as this is truly groundbreaking when it comes to treating type 1 diabetes. For years, scientists have dreamt about being able to recreate the beta cells absent in these people, so that there could be an alternative treatment to expensive pancreas replacements and having to stab yourself twice every time you want to eat a snack or something. Well, I feel bad now, because I’m obligated to inform that it’s not all sunshine and non-diabetic rainbows just yet. As is the case with solving a problem in science, a ton of little ones you never even knew about will inevitably crawl out of the woodwork.
Your regularly scheduled doom and gloom
The thing is, if we tried to implant these things inside a diabetic person right now, their immune system would just destroy them like they would any pancreatic beta cell. But of course, nobody expected the problem to be solved that quickly, right? Fret not; the same team responsible for this discovery is currently making strides on the next step: changing the cells up a bit so they can avoid being detected by your self-destructive self-preservation system.
Hopefully, you’ll walk away from this just a little bit smarter. You know now that mice are great for testing things that you don’t want to test on yourself, stem cells do not involve Frankenstein’s monster crawling out of a test tube, and that someday, maybe we’ll find a way to cure type 1 diabetes completely. One thing’s for certain: diabetes sucks. But, maybe it won’t be that way for much longer.