A new treatment that uses an injection of adult stem cells from bone marrow in combination with a drug may provide a cure for diabetes, scientists claim.
"We discovered that type 1 diabetes destroys not only insulin-producing cells but also blood vessels that support them," said lead researcher Habib Zaghouani from the University of Missouri.
"When we realised how important the blood vessels were to insulin production, we developed a cure that combines a drug we created with adult stem cells from bone marrow.
"The drug stops the immune system attack, and the stem cells generate new blood vessels that help insulin-producing cells to multiply and thrive," he said.
In previous studies, Zaghouani and his team developed a drug against type 1 diabetes called Ig-GAD2. They found that treatment with the drug stopped the immune system from attacking beta cells, but too few beta cells survived the attack to reverse the disease.
In his latest study on mice, Zaghouani used Ig-GAD2 and then injected adult stem cells from bone marrow into the pancreas in the hope that the stem cells would evolve into beta cells.
"The combination of Ig-GAD2 and bone marrow cells did result in production of new beta cells, but not in the way we expected," Zaghouani said.
"We thought the bone marrow cells would evolve directly into beta cells. Instead, the bone marrow cells led to growth of new blood vessels, and it was the blood vessels that facilitated reproduction of new beta cells.
"In other words, we discovered that to cure type 1 diabetes, we need to repair the blood vessels that allow the subject's beta cells to grow and distribute insulin throughout the body," he said.
Zaghouani is pursuing a patent for his promising treatment and hopes to translate his discovery from use in mice to humans.
"Our discovery about the importance of restoring blood vessels has the potential to be applied not only to type 1 diabetes but also a number of other autoimmune diseases," he added.
The study was published in the journal Diabetes.