In the study, 15 of 28 teens with type 1 diabetes who got an experimental treatment using their own stem cells went into remission and did not need insulin injections for an average of about 1.5 years. The treatment combines stem cell therapy with drugs that suppress the body's immune system. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells within the pancreas. The experimental treatment is called autologous nonmyeloablative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). It aims to kill the destructive immune system cells and replace them with immature stem cells not programmed to destroy insulin-producing cells.
Patients are first given drugs to stimulate production of blood stem cells. The blood stem cells are then removed from the body and frozen. Then, patients are hospitalized and given drugs to kill the destructive immune system cells. The harvested blood stem cells are then put back into the patient.
Eight teens who took part in the study have remained insulin-free for two years, on average. One patient has gone without insulin injections for 3.5 years.
"All our patients considered the [treatment] to be worthwhile and beneficial, though some patients experienced side effects," study head Weiqiong Gu, MD, of Ruijin Hospital in Shanghai.
As a result of the immune-system suppressing drugs, most of the patients in Gu's study experienced side effects including low white blood cell counts, fever, nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and suppression of bone marrow.
Most of those side effects disappeared within two to four weeks, and unlike in previous studies of the experimental therapy, none of the patients developed infections, pneumonia, low sperm counts, or organ damage.
Patients will be followed for years to ensure that they do not develop known long-term complications of immune-suppressing drugs, including tumors and infertility.
According to Dennis Lox, MD, a sports, physical and regenerative medicine specialist in the Tampa Bay area, stem cells appear to hold great promise in treating a variety of diseases and conditions. Some conditions, such as joint, tendon and muscle injury, are treatable now with stem cells. Other conditions, such as ALS, heart disease and MS, appear to be treatable with stem cell therapy, but widespread treatment is still in the near-future. This study, although small in number, brings the treatment of type 1 diabetes that much closer.