Beta Cells From Stem Cells: Nearing a Cure for Type 1 Diabetes?

Anne L. Peters, MD


June 28, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Those of us in the field of diabetes have long wanted to cure type 1 diabetes, and there are little steps making me feel like this might be a possibility. One of those steps is that a company named Vertex — I'm actually on the steering committee for Vertex in terms of this project — has made beta cells from stem cells. Now, instead of waiting for a cadaveric donor, we can make little beta cells. They started giving them to people in human trials. The US Food and Drug Administration has been cautious because it's new, and I get that.

In the first part of these trials, we could only give half a dose of these beta cells. The doses were determined based on what we know from giving beta-cell transplants from cadaveric donors. We gave half a dose of these stem cell–derived beta cells to two people who were having episodes of severe hypoglycemia.

In patient 1, these beta cells worked incredibly well. He became insulin independent, and now after over a year, he's basically free of his type 1 diabetes. Patient 2 received half a dose, and she did get some activity of the beta cells, but not enough to achieve insulin independence, so she got a second dose. Shortly after the second dose, she decided she didn't want to participate in the trial anymore and she was lost to follow-up.

Patient 2 didn't get the same response as patient 1, but then we moved on to four more patients who got a full dose to start with. Now, there's a total of six patients. Of those additional four patients, one of them has now been followed for a year. Just like patient 1, he's off insulin. It's as though his body has normal beta cells and he's doing great. For the next three patients, we don't have enough follow-up data to tell you what's going to happen to them at a year.

I can tell you that, in all six patients, the beta cells worked. They basically were producing insulin, they had positive C-peptide levels, and it showed that these beta cells work when given to human beings. Now the trial is going to start giving more patients these stem cell–derived beta cells.

One of the things that's important to realize is that this is a very small sample size, at just six individuals. Even within those six individuals, there was variation in terms of the response to the treatment. Probably, just like with all things in medicine, there will be different doses, different ways in which people do respond, people who get off of insulin completely, and people who may require some ongoing insulin therapy. I have no idea what this is going to look like as we test this in more people.

Everybody did start making C-peptide, they were having an effect of these beta cells, and it was working. We'll have to see how well it works, how well it works in whom, and how we're going to be able to use these types of therapies in the future.

In terms of side effects, they were really related to immunosuppression. There were no real surprises, but again, this is a very small sample size.

In summary, I think this is really hopeful. I don't like to give false hope, but each step of this development process has shown that these beta cells derived from stem cells do seem to work in human beings as native beta cells might. Hopefully, this portends a future of newer therapies in the treatment of people with type 1 diabetes. Thank you.

Anne L. Peters, MD, is a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and director of the USC clinical diabetes programs. She has published more than 200 articles, reviews, and abstracts, and three books, on diabetes, and has been an investigator for more than 40 research studies. She has spoken internationally at over 400 programs and serves on many committees of several professional organizations .

For more diabetes and endocrinology news, follow us on Twitter and on Facebook

Follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.