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Diabetes: How can Stem Cell Transplant help?

What is Diabetes?


Diabetes is a commonly seen pancreatic disorder that affects millions of people all over the world every year. Although there is no cure for this disorder it is currently being controlled using insulin injections mainly.

The energy needed by the cells in the body is carried in the form of sugar (glucose) in the blood. In normal circumstances, the pancreas control and maintain the production and the blood sugar levels using the insulin hormone which is made by the beta cells in the pancreas. These beta cells are seen growing in clusters called as ‘Islets of Langerhans’ with a normal person having around I million Langerhans islets. 

What are the different types of Diabetes?

There are mainly two types of diabetes:

Type 1 Diabetes – This develops when the immune system gets damaged and the beta cells in the pancreas get destroyed. This results in the blood sugar level to become unregulated and stay in the higher levels permanently. This leads to permanent damage to the body.

Type 2 Diabetes – This develops when the beta cells produce insufficient amount of insulin in the pancreas. This can also develop if the quality and function of the insulin produced is low. 

How is Diabetes treated?

Today, diabetes has no cure but the treatment methods are aimed at controlling the insulin and the blood sugar levels in the body.  Type 2 diabetes is often controlled by regular exercising and adopting a healthy diet.

However, people with Type 2 diabetes find it difficult to control the symptoms so easily. Type 2 diabetes requires regular and close monitoring of the person’s blood sugar levels in a day and to administer insulin as and when required by the body. This insulin is mostly injected using a fine syringe needle or an insulin-pump. However, at times it can get difficult to control the blood sugar levels and this can cause severe damage to the blood vessels, heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves. Care needs to be taken while measuring the amount of insulin before administering it as even a slight excess insulin level in the body can result in abnormally low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia) which can prove fatal.

Stem Cell Transplant and Diabetes:

New research has suggested the possibility to treat type 1 diabetes by transplanting isolated islet cells (which contain beta cells) or even complete pancreas from a close relative donor. Transplants can help the body to regain the control of the blood sugar levels and rid of the need to inject insulin.

Transplanting islet is more convenient and safer as a complete pancreas transplant requires major surgery and also carries certain risks.

There are however certain drawbacks of islet transplantation, such as:

  • Number of donors cannot fulfill the demand for good quality islets.
  • The immunosuppressant drugs necessary after a transplant to prevent organ rejection by the body’s immune system also increase the body’s vulnerability towards infections and can also have several side-effects. Limited numbers of people suffering from type 1 diabetes are found to be suitable for pancreatic transplant.

Even after the transplant the with immunosuppressant drugs the immune system might reject and destroy the transplanted pancreas and this would require another transplantation surgery.

Researchers are hopeful of creating beta cells in the laboratory with sufficient amount of high quality islets for transplant.

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