According to the Center for Disease Control, 1.25 million people suffer from type 1 diabetes in the US alone. So far, it can only be managed with diet and regular doses of insulin, but scientists at UT Health San Antonio have invented a way of curing the disease in mice that may one day do the same for humans even with type 2 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is a particularly unpleasant condition. It occurs when the pancreas ceases to produce the insulin needed by the body to metabolize sugar and, until the invention of artificial insulin injections, it was as deadly as cancer. Type 2 is the less severe form of the disease, where the body produces insufficient insulin; it can often be managed through diet alone.
Surprisingly, diabetes is an autoimmune disease. Insulin is made by specialized cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, and sometimes the body’s immune system turns against itself and attacks these beta cells, destroying them. Diabetes results when this destruction is over 80 percent.
Invented by Bruno Doiron and Ralph DeFronzo, the UT Health technique uses gene transfer to alter cells in the pancreases of mice to make them think they’re beta cells and start making insulin. This involves taking selected genes from external beta cells and using viruses as carriers to move them into the new host cells, in the diabetic pancreas.