Melbourne researchers’ diabetes discovery could reduce need for insulin injections

Diabetes researchers say they have made a breakthrough that could pave the way to eliminating the need for daily insulin injections.

The Monash University research, published in the journal Nature Signal transduction and targeted therapycould lead to insulin regeneration in pancreatic stem cells.

Insulin is a hormone, made by so-called pancreatic beta cells, that helps regulate blood sugar.

Generally speaking, people with diabetes don’t naturally produce enough insulin or their body doesn’t use the hormone as it should. The beta cells of many people with diabetes are unable to produce insulin at all.

“There are different forms of diabetes and it is a disease that requires constant attention,” said Keith Al-Hasani, a Monash University researcher and one of the study’s authors.

Type 1 diabetes typically first appears when patients are children, which Dr. Al-Hasani said often meant up to five insulin injections a day as young people adjusted to the disease. Affected adults can administer up to 100 injections per month to manage the disease.

Study co-author Keith Al-Hasani says the research could lead to a cost-effective treatment.(ABC News: Rosanne Maloney)

After a 13-year-old child died with type 1 diabetes, researchers studied donated pancreatic cells and used a compound to trigger insulin production.

“We’re reprogramming cells that don’t usually produce insulin, to express insulin now,” said researcher and study co-author Ishant Khurana.

The compound GSK126 is approved for use to treat another condition by the United States Food and Drug Administration, but has not been used for the treatment of diabetes in Australia or elsewhere.

Dr. Ishant Khurana, wearing a white coat, smiles broadly at the camera.
Ishant Khurana says the team’s work could improve the quality of life for people with diabetes. (ABC News: Rosanne Maloney)

Although the researchers studied stem cells, they did not genetically modify the cells to achieve their results.

The authors acknowledged that there is still a long way to go before the potential treatment can be used in humans.

They then want to collect more pancreatic cell samples from more people and then move on to animal trials before eventually starting human clinical trials.

The end goal, Dr. Khurana said, was to eliminate the need for daily injections and pancreas transplants.

This would affect most people with type 1 diabetes and about 30% of people with type 2 diabetes who are insulin dependent.

According to Diabetes Australia, around 1.8 million Australians have diabetes and it is the fastest growing disease in the country. About 500 million people have the disease worldwide.

Simon McCrudden, 46, has been administering his own insulin since the age of seven and said removing the burden of daily injections would be “massive”.

“I would have to learn to do everyday life again, but that would be awesome,” he said.

Simon McCrudden smiles for a portrait at home outside a library.
Injections and blood sugar monitoring are part of everyday life for Simon McCrudden, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child.(ABC License: SBS News/Tim Stevens)

Associate Professor Neale Cohen, director of clinical diabetes research at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, said the Monash research was still in its early stages but showed great potential.

“There are a number of attempts to find ways to replace beta cells, all of which are extremely important. And if that’s possible, that would mean that it would be a cure for people with type 1 diabetes,” a- he declared.

Dr Cohen, who was not involved in the study, said research over several decades had revealed “it appears to be remarkably difficult to reprogram cells to become insulin-producing cells” .

“People will no longer need to inject insulin, and they will no longer have the burden of this chronic disease.”