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Wash U research could someday eliminate need for insulin shots

After a meal, your blood sugar tends to rise. When it does, there are cells in your pancreas called beta cells that react by releasing insulin, which controls blood sugar.

People who have Type 1 diabetes have damaged beta cells and can't produce insulin. To manage the disease, they either have to inject insulin or wear a pump all day.

But new stem cell research at Washington University could lead to a breakthrough that helps their bodies produce the insulin they need.

In a study published this week in the journal Nature Communications, scientists at Washington University and Harvard University describe how they take skin cells from patients with Type 1 diabetes and reprogram them into stem cells. The cells are then turned into beta cells that can respond to glucose. 

Doctors could transplant these reprogrammed cells into Type 1 diabetes patients. 

"This would be a great way of avoiding many of the complications associated with diabetes," said Jeff Millman, a co-author of the study and a professor of medicine and biomedical engineering at Washington University.

Many Type 1 diabetes patients prick their fingers to figure out how much insulin they need. But using that approach can lead to side effects if they miscalculate.

Re-engineered beta cells could more precisely measure what a patient needs. 

Scientists have so far only achieved success in cell cultures and in mice. Researchers say it could take three to five years before the new cells are tested on humans.

Millman said that the research will give scientists an opportunity to understand how Type 1 diabetes develops and could help them determine how to stop it in its tracks before it starts.

"My vision here was that you could give a pill to someone who has a family history of diabetes so that they don’t have to develop the disease themselves," he said.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.