RIBEIRAO PRETO, Brazil (BP)–In a study that some say should impact the debate over embryonic stem cells, 13 diabetic patients no longer are using insulin after undergoing a procedure where they were infused with their own adult stem cells.
The trial in Brazil involved 15 type 1 diabetes patients of both sexes ranging in age from 14-31, all of whom had been diagnosed with diabetes within the previous six weeks. All but two of them are insulin-free after undergoing a treatment where they intravenously received stem cells from their own blood. In fact, the treatment even worked in one of the latter two patients for a year before a relapse.
Some are throwing around the word “cure,” although most doctors are avoiding that term for now. Studies with larger groups need to be done.
“It’s the threshold of a very promising time for the field,” Dr. Jay Skyler of the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami told the Associated Press.
Dr. Gordon Weir of Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston told AP, “These are exciting results. They look impressive.”
At least one of the patients has been insulin-free for three years. Dr. Richard Burt, one of 13 authors of the study, told the news service it is “the first time in the history of type 1 diabetes where people have gone with no treatment whatsoever … no medications at all, with normal blood sugars.”
The promising study focusing on type 1 diabetes — sometimes called juvenile diabetes — comes as the Senate prepares to pass a bill that would provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Opponents of such research assert that the Brazil study is one more example showing that adult stem cell research is more promising than embryonic stem cell research, and without the ethical dilemmas.
Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of the tiny human beings. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, can be found throughout a person’s body and don’t harm the donor. Although many researchers say embryonic stem cells show more promise, so far such cells have yet to produce any treatments.
“It’s very important that the public be told what this is: an adult stem cell success, not the much-touted embryo stem cell research,” U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (Rep.), a medical doctor and an opponent of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, said in a statement. “… We need to focus on human treatments for today, not those with false hope for tomorrow.”
He added, “There was no controversial destruction of human embryos. Embryo stem cells form tumors and have never been shown to be safe for use in humans.”
According to Daniel J. DeNoon, senior medical writer for WebMD Medical News, the procedure involved a four-step process:
1. “Soon after diagnosis of type 1 diabetes — while a person still has plenty of beta cells left — the patient is given drugs that stimulate production of blood stem cells.”
2. “The blood stem cells are removed from the patient’s body and frozen for later use.”
3. “The patient is given drugs and antibodies that kill off immune cells, leaving other blood cells intact.” According to press reports, a “mild form” of chemotherapy is used in this stage.
4. “The blood stem cells are reinfused into the patient.”
Compiled by Michael Foust.