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The next stem cell frontier: diabetes

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When you think of stem cell treatments, you probably picture a patient with an immune disorder or cancer. But thanks to a new partnership between Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Biotech, Inc. and biotech company ViaCyte, Inc., there’s a new wave of stem cell research being conducted that holds a lot of promise for people with Type 1 diabetes.

According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 1.25 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes. Although the exact cause of Type 1 diabetes isn’t known, in most cases, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy pancreatic cells. As a result, people lose the ability to make insulin—a hormone that allows the body to convert glucose from food into energy—causing sugar to build up in the bloodstream.

Over time, people with Type 1 diabetes can develop serious complications, such as blindness, heart disease, nerve damage, and kidney failure. So patients have to closely monitor what they eat, test their blood sugar up to six or more times a day, and carefully balance their insulin levels using injections or insulin pumps.

But ViaCyte’s work with VC-01™ could change all of that.

The VC-01™ product uses two unique technologies. First, embryonic stem cells are turned into immature pancreas cells. These “starter cells” are then placed into a small ViaCyte Encaptra® mesh capsule that’s inserted just beneath the skin on a patient’s back, where they can grow and mature into insulin-producing cells.

Since body fluids can flow through the mesh, the cells are able to help regulate glucose in the blood. And while more research still needs to be done, it’s possible that, once implanted, the capsule could remain effective for several years before it needs to be replaced.

“It’s like [having] a whole new pancreas,” explains Diego Miralles, MD, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation. “It will be able to completely control the blood glucose of a person without them needing to measure their blood or inject insulin, enabling them to lead a normal life.”

The treatment is currently being tested on patients through clinical trials in the U.S. and Canada, with the hope that VC-01™ could be on the market in the next five to 10 years—and possibly even help people with Type 2 diabetes down the road.

“It’s early, but we’ve seen encouraging signs,” Miralles says. “It’s difficult to make predictions, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Stephanie Booth is a freelancer writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her stories have appeared in magazines like Real Simple, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and online at Salon, Psychology Today, and The Stir.

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