Johnson & Johnson, continuing its long quest for a Type 1 diabetes cure, is joining forces with biotech company ViaCyte to speed development of the first stem cell treatment that could fix the life-threatening hormonal disorder.
They’ve already begun testing it in a small number of diabetic patients. If it works as well in patients as it has in animals, it would amount to a cure, ending the need for frequent insulin injections and blood sugar testing.
ViaCyte and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen BetaLogics group said Thursday they’ve agreed to combine their knowledge and hundreds of patents on their research under ViaCyte, a longtime J&J partner focused on regenerative medicine.
The therapy involves inducing embryonic stem cells in a lab dish to turn into insulin-producing cells, then putting them inside a small capsule that is implanted under the skin. The capsule protects the cells from the immune system, which otherwise would attack them as invaders – a roadblock that has stymied other research projects.
Researchers at universities and other drug companies also are working toward a diabetes cure, using various strategies. But according to ViaCyte and others, this treatment is the first tested in patients.
If the project succeeds, the product could be available in several years for Type 1 diabetes patients and down the road could also treat insulin-using Type 2 diabetics.
“This one is potentially the real deal,” said Dr. Tom Donner, director of the diabetes center at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s like making a new pancreas that makes all the hormones” needed to control blood sugar.
Donner, who is not involved in the research, said if the device gives patients normal insulin levels, “it’s going to prevent millions of diabetics from getting dangerous complications.”
People with Type 1 diabetes no longer produce insulin, the hormone that converts sugar in the blood into energy, because their immune system has killed off the beta cells in the pancreas. Those cells make insulin in response to rising blood sugar levels after a meal.
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