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Shanghai doctors achieve medical first: Curing diabetes with stem cell therapy

The breakthrough offers hope for millions as a patient with Type 2 diabetes goes insulin-free for over 2 years

For millions of people worldwide, diabetes is a constant shadow, a chronic condition that requires daily monitoring and management. The prospect of a cure has long been a distant dream.

However, a recent medical breakthrough by doctors in Shanghai, China, offers a glimmer of hope. For the first time ever, a team at Shanghai Changzheng Hospital has successfully used stem cell therapy to cure a patient with Type 2 diabetes.

The groundbreaking treatment involved transplanting pancreatic cells derived from the patient's own stem cells. The 59-year-old man, who had been battling Type 2 diabetes for 25 years, has now been completely weaned off insulin for almost three years.

This remarkable achievement is documented in a paper published in the journal Cell Discovery, detailing the culmination of over a decade of dedicated research by the Shanghai Changzheng Hospital team.

Stem cells offer new hope

The significance of this breakthrough lies in its potential to revolutionize diabetes treatment. Traditionally, patients with severe diabetes often require minimally invasive islet transplantation, a procedure that involves transplanting pancreatic islet tissue from a donor.

However, this approach faces several challenges. The availability of suitable donors is limited, and the complex isolation technology required to extract islet tissue makes it difficult to meet the high demand. This is where stem cell therapy emerges as a game-changer.

The Shanghai research team focused on developing a method to regenerate human pancreatic islet tissue on a large scale in a lab setting. This involved using the patient's own peripheral blood mononuclear cells and reprogramming them into autologous induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Through their innovative technology, these iPSCs were then transformed into "seed cells" capable of reconstituting pancreatic islet tissue in a specially designed artificial environment.

According to the team's head researcher and director of the hospital's Organ Transplant Center, Dr. Yin Hao, their technology has advanced and is now pioneering new approaches to treating diabetes using regenerative medicine. Working alongside scientists from the Center for Excellence in Molecular Cell Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr. Yin's team successfully implemented this revolutionary approach.

Stem cell therapy concept with laboratory equipment and stem cells in a petri dish.

A life-changing diabetes treatment

The patient chosen for this pioneering treatment was at a critical juncture. Having received a kidney transplant in 2017, he was facing the possibility of severe diabetic complications due to a significant loss of pancreatic islet function. Prior to the stem cell therapy, he relied on multiple daily insulin injections to manage his condition.

Following the transplant surgery in July 2021, the patient's health trajectory took a dramatic turn for the better. Within eleven weeks, he was no longer dependent on external insulin. The dosage of oral medication for blood sugar control was gradually reduced and eventually discontinued altogether after a year.

Follow-up examinations confirmed a successful restoration of the patient's pancreatic islet function, along with normal kidney function. These positive outcomes suggest the potential of this treatment to not only manage diabetes but also to prevent the development of debilitating complications.

While this initial success story offers immense hope for the future of diabetes treatment, Dr. Yin emphasizes the need for further research. Larger-scale clinical trials are necessary to validate the efficacy and safety of stem cell therapy for diabetes. The Shanghai Changzheng Hospital team is committed to furthering their research and paving the way for this potentially life-changing treatment to reach millions of patients worldwide.

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