Last week, two people with type 1 diabetes became the first to receive implants containing cells generated from embryonic stem cells to treat their condition. The hope is that when blood sugar levels rise, the implants will release insulin to restore them to normal.
Viacyte, a company in San Diego, California, is trying a way to get round this. The firm’s credit-card-sized implant, called PEC-Direct, contain cells derived from stem cells that can mature inside the body into the specialised islet cells that get destroyed in type 1 diabetes.
The implant sits just below the skin, in the forearm, for example, and is intended to automatically compensate for the missing islet cells, releasing insulin when blood sugar levels get too high.
“If it works, we would call it a functional cure,” says Paul Laikind, of Viacyte. “It’s not truly a cure because we wouldn’t address the autoimmune cause of the disease, but we would be replacing the missing cells.”
If effective, it could free people with type 1 diabetes from having to closely monitor their blood sugar levels and inject insulin, although they would need to take immunosuppressive drugs to stop their bodies from destroying the new cells.
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