Diabetes and Stem Cells

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. An autoimmune condition is caused when the body’s immune system attacks health tissue. In the case of type 1 diabetes, beta cells which produce insulin in the pancreas are destroyed; without these cells the body is unable to produce enough insulin to appropriately regulate blood glucose levels.[1] It is not fully understood what makes the immune system behave this way; however, some researchers have suggested that a viral infection may be the cause. Additionally, there may be a genetic factor as the condition often runs in families.[2]

Type 1 diabetes affects 400,000 people in the UK, of those 29,000 are children. In 2010/2011 the costs associated with type 1 diabetes was £1.9 billion both directly and indirectly. It is predicted that the costs associated with type 1 diabetes could rise to as much as £4.2 billion per year by 2035.[3] The overall cost of diabetes to the NHS is £1.5 million an hour, equivalent to 10% of the total NHS budget for England and Wales.[4] Complications surrounding diabetes, most of which are preventable, account for 79% of the expenditure on diabetes.[5]

There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, treatments aim to keep blood sugar levels as normal as possible. Insulin treatment is required for patients with type 1 diabetes as their body is incapable of creating enough, this could be either via an insulin pump or insulin injections.[6] Type 1 diabetes can have a huge impact upon the lives of patients; a child diagnosed at 5 years of age could endure up to 19,000 injections and 50,000 finger pricks by the time they are 18.[7]

Diabetes Facts

  • 400,000 people in the UK with type 1 diabetes[3]
  • 29,000 children have type 1 diabetes in the UK [3]
  • Type 1 diabetes costs the UK £1.9 billion annually [3]
  • Diabetes accounts for 10% of the NHS budget of England and Wales [4]
  • Up to 19,000 injections and 50,000 finger pricks for a child diagnosed at age 5 by their 18th birthday[7]
  • 97% of cases of diabetes in children are type 1 diabetes[7]
  • Type 1 diabetes is more common in children than bacterial meningitis, cancer, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis[7]
  • Half of people with type 1 diabetes in the UK are diagnosed under the age of 15 and 90% are diagnosed by 30[8]
  • The incidence of type 1 diabetes in the UK has doubled every 20 years since 1945[8]
  • 1 in 15 people in the UK has diabetes[11]

Diabetes and Stem Cells

Researchers at Harvard have had success with using stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes in mice. The researchers were unable to inject stem cells directly into pancreatic islets because of the fragility of the pancreas; additionally the pancreas releases highly toxic enzymes when manipulated. The team created the HCELL homing molecule to guide the stem cells to the inflamed pancreatic islets in the preclinical trials. The injections were found to create a sustained reversal of diabetes and take away the need to administer insulin for up to two-and-a-half years.[9]

In other preclinical research conducted in Belgium, it was found that pancreatic cells could be reprogrammed to emulate beta-cells. The cells were able to produce insulin and researchers hope that they could be used for transplantation in the future; however, further research is needed.[10]


  1. http://www.diabetes.co.uk/type1-diabetes.html
  2. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Diabetes-type1/Pages/Causes.aspx
  3. http://www.jdrf.org.uk/life-with-type-1-diabetes/type-1-diabetes-what-do-people-really-know
  4. http://www.diabetes.co.uk/cost-of-diabetes.html
  5. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/about_us/news_landing_page/nhs-spending-on-diabetes-to-reach-169-billion-by-2035/
  6. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Diabetes-type1/Pages/Treatment.aspx
  7. http://www.jdrf.org.uk/life-with-type-1-diabetes/type-1-diabetes-what-do-people-really-know
  8. http://www.jdrft1.org.uk/page.asp?section=255§ionTitle=Type+1+Diabetes+Facts
  9. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/01/steering-stem-cell-trafficking-into-pancreas-reverses-type-1-diabetes/
  10. www.pharmaceutical-journal.com
  11. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/resources-s3/2019-02/1362B_Facts%20and%20stats%20Update%20Jan%202019_LOW%20RES_EXTERNAL.pdf
  12. Stem cells (Dayton, Ohio), 33(5), 1523–1531. https://doi.org/10.1002/stem.1948
  13. Stem cell research & therapy, 13(1), 264. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13287-022-02941-w

The information contained in this article is for information purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of a medical expert. If you have any concerns about your health we urge you to discuss them with your doctor.



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