In 2010, more than 200,000 Americans under the age of 20 had diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, but researchers have found a potential cure, at least for one form of the disease.

There are two types of diabetes: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks beta cells in the pancreas that secrete the important hormone insulin, whereas type 2 diabetes occurs when an unhealthy lifestyle, along with genetic factors, contributes to faulty insulin regulation.

Currently, people living with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin shots. Because their beta cells have been destroyed, type 1 diabetics cannot properly produce or regulate insulin. Insulin is the hormone that facilitates the uptake of glucose by blood cells.

Glucose, which is essentially sugar, fuels our bodies, but without insulin, glucose molecules simply float around in the blood without being taken up by red blood cells and carried to areas of the body that need it, like the heart and brain. If you’ve ever run a car down to empty, it’s easy to imagine what happens when a complex machine can’t get enough fuel.

Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine have now found a potential cure for type 1 diabetes, and it turns out that the fix is in the blood vessels.

A Fix for Diabetic Mice

Faulty beta cell regeneration is at the root of type 1 diabetes, and researchers led by Habib Zaghouani, Ph.D., have found a potential prescription. The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen that contains clusters of cells called islets. These islets house beta cells, except in the case of type 1 diabetes when the beta cells have been mistakenly destroyed by the immune system. When the beta cells are destroyed, the blood vessels supporting them die as well.

“It’s like when you drop a bomb to destroy a building, the bomb is going to hurt neighboring things,” Zaghouani said in an interview with Healthline. “When the immune system attacks the beta cells there is collateral damage to the blood vessel or nearby to the islet and that’s how this problem arises.”

Without beta cells to produce insulin, the blood sugar levels of type 1 diabetics fluctuate dangerously, with effects ranging from fainting to grouchiness to limb loss and even death. So, if researchers can fix the beta cells, they can fix the problem.

Without the blood vessels to supply the beta cells, they can be no regrowth. The treatment Zaghouani developed, a combination of a new drug called Ig-GAD2 and adult stem cells from bone marrow leads to the production of new blood vessels, which in turn facilitates the regrowth or new growth of insulin-producing beta cells.

Bone marrow stem cells are capable of regenerating insulin-producing beta cells, so researchers combined bone marrow stem cells with Ig-GAD2 and found that mice with type 1 diabetes recovered. The stem cells and Ig-GAD2 combination helped regrow blood vessels that fed pancreatic islets, which in turn allowed the islets to produce new beta cells.

"We saw other data supoprting the treatment, and by using bone marrow cells we were hoping to help the beta cells reproduce. We found that that’s not what the bone marrow is doing, exactly. It’s giving life to blood vessels within the pancreas and that was very, very surprising,” Zahouani said. “We have been driven to conclude that you needed the bone marrow cells to fix the blood vessels in the islet of the pancreas to help the beta cells.”

After further research and development, it’s possible that a cocktail of bone marrow stem cells and Ig-GAD2 will not just replace daily insulin injections, but actually turn the bodies of type 1 diabetics back into self-sustaining, healthy systems capable of producing and regulating insulin.

Zaghouani says he hopes to eventually go a step further and to do away with the drug altogether. “I would like to do research where, by finding a way to just supply the blood vessels, stem cells would cure the disease without needing the drug to eliminate the immune cells,” he said.

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