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blood_cellsIn a major breakthrough for stem cell science, scientists have converted umbilical cord blood cells into cells that act like embryonic stem cells.

For many years, the human umbilical cord has always been touted as potential source of cells to cure a number of conditions including type 1 diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Whilst the umbilical cord contains a large number of stem cells, the cells have already progressed down the developmental pathway meaning their use has been very limited.

The two research teams involved with this latest breakthrough have developed a relatively simple technique that “reprograms” the cord blood cells to look and act like embryonic stem cells – theoretically able to differentiate into any cell type in the body.

Lead researcher Dr Izpisua Belmonte of the Salk Institute says cord blood cells could serve as a safe and uncontroversial source of blank stem cells. They can also be collected without any risk for the donor and expected to carry minimal genetic mutations because they are very young cells.

In addition to these benefits, the cells are relatively undeveloped meaning they can be given to patients without needing an identical match. This – in conjunction with the relatively simple reprogramming technique – means existing cord blood banks could build publicly available stem cell banks.

According to JDRF Research Manager Dr Dorota Pawlak, this discovery has implications for people with type 1 diabetes.

“JDRF-funded researchers have pioneered the safe and effective transplantation of beta cells into people with type 1 diabetes and have also successfully converted embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells.”

“The limitation to the success of these programs has been the availability of suitable cells. Although this technology needs to be further refined before applied in individuals, the discovery shows that it may be possible to generate a plentiful supply of useful stem cells for regeneration and replacement of beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes.”

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4 comments

  1. I have been a diabetic for 47 years. Everyone seems to talk about stem cells being such a revelation for us type-1 diabetics but no one has bothered to mention that diabetes is an autoimune desease. Any insulin producing beta cells would be destroyed by the body's immune system. Unless immunosupressive drugs are used, and these are in many cases carsenogenic, I fail to see how this will be achieved. This is really for those diabetics that need this as a last resort. I thought that we should be aiming to avoid geting to that stage.

    1. Hi Paul, This is an excellent point. While stem cells have shown promise for treating all kinds of disorders, there are definitely additional steps required for conditions like type 1 diabetes where the autoimmune process may recur. JDRF has acknowledged this and is funding lots of research into both of these issues. This means we may ultimately be able to prevent and/or reverse the autoimmune process that kills off the beta cells while replacing the cells that have already been lost. Have a look at http://www.jdrf.org/index.cfm?page_id=101980 to read about the research we are conducting into stopping the autoimmune process.

  2. I am currently pregnant and trying to decide whether to store my baby's cord blood. My eldest daughter has type 1 diabetes. She is now 5 and was diagnosed at 12 months. The private storage of cord blood is very expensive and I am finding it hard to find research material that supports possible stem cell conversion.
    Does any one have any suggestions or recommendations?
    Thanks
    Louise

  3. How exciting, I am looking forward to the newsletter for more information on this great research