In the world’s 20 million people who have type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is damaged, often by the body’s own immune system, and the organ’s so-called “beta” cells lose their ability to make insulin. Without insulin, the body can’t process sugars into energy.

The treatment is a lifetime of twice-daily insulin injections.

Other cures have shown promise, including pancreas transplants and using stem cells from skin to make new beta cells. However, both treatments require anti-rejection drugs that suppress the immune system in general and put patients at risk for any number of infections.

Scientists at Australia’s Monash University may have found a better way to put an end to that endless round of needles.

The researchers collected pancreatic stem cells from persons with type 1 diabetes. Stem cells have the ability to become any one of a variety of specialized cells when exposed to the right biochemicals.

After culturing the stem cells in lab dishes, the research group dosed them with a drug known as GSK126, which has been approved by the FDA as a treatment for cancer.

Normally, pancreatic stem cells don’t produce insulin. However, the anti-cancer drug jolted the stem cells to behave like beta cells. A few days after receiving one dose of the drug, the stem cells began making normal amounts of insulin. 

TRENDPOST: The researchers have a lot of work to do: testing the concept in mice, then larger animals before humans with type 1 diabetes can be involved. Any clinical applications for people are at least three years away.

However, this breakthrough not only holds the solid promise of a cure for type 1 diabetes, but also shows a new direction in research that could do the same for type 2 diabetes, in which the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t make enough of it.

Type 2 diabetes has been widely described as a global epidemic. The World Health Organization estimates that 5 percent of the world’s population will contract type 2 diabetes by 2030.

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