Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition. It is caused by the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This process results in insulin deficiency and, consequently, high blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Approximately 1.84 million adults in the US have type 1 diabetes, with 64,000¹ new patients diagnosed annually.
In someone suffering from type 1 diabetes, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin. Without insulin, glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to high blood glucose levels, a condition known as hyperglycemia.² If left untreated, hyperglycemia can cause damage to the eyes, heart, kidneys, and feet.
The primary treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin replacement therapy,³ which replaces the body’s natural insulin supply.
Despite this, no definitive cures for type 1 diabetes exist. However, significant progress has been made toward developing effective long-term treatments, with experimental trials showing promising results.
We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Type 1 diabetes, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.
Type 1 diabetes has no cure. Current treatments focus only on managing the disease. However, scientific research is advancing rapidly, with discoveries that could lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Stem cell treatments⁴ have gained attention for promising results for type 1 diabetes. This type of treatment involves mimicking the function of the pancreas by replacing or supplementing the beta cells that were destroyed in type 1 diabetes.
Two stem cell types have been proposed to treat type 1 diabetes:
Human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are a cell line that comes from a developing embryo in its earliest stages of growth. ESCs have been a focus of many research fields (e.g., spinal injury therapy) for their ability to reproduce rapidly and differentiate into various types of cells, including beta cells.
Human-induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are another type of cell line, but these are derived from adult cells. These cells are genetically reprogrammed to become ESCs, where they also differentiate into specialized cell types. Typically, iPSCs are obtained from adults, making it a potential option to replace damaged tissues without requiring a donor.
Using a range of molecular techniques, scientists imitate the development process of pancreatic beta cells to induce growth. Once the stem cells have specialized, they can be transplanted under the skin, where they mature into beta cells.
Gradually, these cells will be able to secrete appropriate amounts of insulin in response to changes in blood glucose levels.
Currently, one clinical trial⁵ is testing stem cells as a potential type 1 diabetes treatment. This study recruited 17 patients with type 1 diabetes who relied on insulin injections.
The patients received half a dose of pancreatic cells developed from stem cells.
With the help of immunosuppressive treatment to prevent the patient’s body from attacking the new cells, the trial announced impressive results⁶ from one of those patients 90 days post-treatment, with meaningful outcomes such as:
Restoration of natural insulin production
A 91% decrease in daily insulin injection use
Reduced HbA1c (a measurement of blood glucose) levels are indicative of lower glucose circulation in the blood.
Although results have left researchers optimistic, this clinical trial is still in progress. Furthermore, stem cell application as a therapeutic treatment remains controversial.
There are ethical concerns associated with the application of ESCs, as human embryos are destroyed to obtain the stem cells used in the treatments. Issues can also arise when inducing stem cell growth because there is no guarantee that the cells will grow as intended.
Even if transplantation is successful, cells may not function as intended. Another risk is that new stem cells may trigger an immune response, which could lead to the body attacking the new cells, essentially reversing treatment efforts.
Nonetheless, stem cell treatments are a promising first step in developing a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Stem cells are just one form of treatment being researched as a cure for type 1 diabetes. Scientists are currently working on several other approaches, such as:
Insulin injections are the primary form of treatment for type 1 diabetes. They’re used multiple times a day to regulate blood glucose levels. Insulin treatments can differ by how quickly they take effect and how long they last.
Doctors work with their patients to find the best insulin treatment plan.
The table below shows different types of insulin treatments:
Onset indicates how long it takes the insulin to reach the bloodstream and begin lowering blood glucose levels.
Peak is when the insulin is at maximum strength.
Duration is how long the insulin keeps the blood glucose levels low.
Insulin injections may cause side effects, such as bruising, swelling, itching, and redness around the injection area.
If the insulin lowers the blood glucose too much, severe symptoms linked to hypoglycemia may be present, such as:
If these symptoms occur, consume something sweet, such as a small glass of juice or some candy.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that aims to reprogram the body’s immune system to prevent it from attacking beta cells in the pancreas. These therapies work in several ways, such as:
Inhibiting or deleting certain groups of white blood cells and inflammation-causing cells.
Resetting and establishing immune tolerance by activating regulatory immune cells to fight against autoimmune attacks.
Removing autoreactive immune cells responsible for attacking beta cells.
Research into immunotherapy is ongoing, and limited clinical trials are available. This therapy is yet to be regulated and evaluated, so doctors can’t currently prescribe this as a treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Insulin replacement therapy involves replacing destroyed pancreatic cells with functioning beta cells by transplanting the whole pancreas or pancreatic cells. This procedure aims to restore the body’s ability to produce insulin and re-establish normal regulation of blood glucose levels.
To date, whole pancreas transplantation has been the most successful approach for treating type 1 diabetes, with a transplant survival rate of 82%.⁷ Pancreatic cell transplantation has also been very successful, with 65% of patients⁸ no longer needing to rely on insulin therapy.
However, more research is needed before whole pancreas transplantation is regarded as a cure.
This therapy combines insulin therapy with other medications that can modify immune system function. This puts immunotherapy together with other treatments to target the multiple pathways through which type 1 diabetes may occur.
Subsequently, this therapy intends to maintain function in the remaining pancreatic beta cells.
Some studies⁹ using various combination therapies have been conducted, showing promising results in animals. Unfortunately, combination therapy has been less successful in humans. This may be due to several reasons, such as:
Inability to find complementary drug therapies
Slow regeneration of beta cells
Variation in disease onset and immune responses.
Some studies¹⁰ show that type 1 diabetes has been reversed in some patients through stem cell implantation or personalized medicine.
However, this is not conclusive proof that type 1 diabetes is reversible. Long-term follow-up is needed to see if these patients can maintain permanent pancreatic function without relying on insulin therapy.
Studies with larger groups are also required to evaluate the effects of potential treatments on a large scale.
No approved medications or methods of preventing or curing type 1 diabetes are available. However, the disease can be effectively managed by balancing diet, insulin intake, and frequent blood monitoring.
The CDC recommends the following methods to manage type 1 diabetes:
Regular blood glucose checks when insulin doses need to be adjusted
Getting regular physical check-ups to reduce the risk of diabetic complications
Incorporating healthy stress management strategies
Joining a diabetes support group.
In an emergency, a medical provider should be called immediately. This is particularly important if the person is experiencing telltale symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis.¹¹ The onset of diabetic ketoacidosis makes blood more acidic (e.g., “fruity”-smelling breath, nausea, and passing out).
Seek advice from a doctor if the following symptoms are present:
Frequent episodes of hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia.
Persistent symptoms that have not improved after treatment.
Blood glucose level measurements remain abnormally high or low after treatment.
Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety become apparent.
While no cure is available for type 1 diabetes, research has delivered encouraging results that help us draw closer to finding one.
For now, the best way to treat type 1 diabetes is to effectively manage symptoms through insulin injections and frequent blood glucose monitoring. The affected person should discuss their options with a doctor, who can help develop an effective diabetes management plan.
Hyperglycemia | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Insulin | NIH: National Library of Medicine
A safety, tolerability, and efficacy study of VX-880 in participants with type 1 diabetes | NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine
Vertex announces positive day 90data for the first patient in the phase 1/2 clinical trial dosed with VX-880, a novel investigational stem cell-derived therapy for the treatment of type 1 diabetes | Business Wire
Ketoacidosis | NIH: National Library of Medicine
Human insulin | NIH: National Library of Medicine