stem cell educator

Re-educating wayward immune cells could help type 1 and type 2 diabetics

by Barbara Hewitt on July 17, 2017

A treatment that aims to work on wayward immune cells in people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes by re-educating them may continue to help even years later, a new study has found.

The treatment, described by researchers as stem cell educator therapy is used to briefly expose immune system cells taken from a blood sample to stem cells from umbilical cord blood and then return them to the body.

(Piotr Adamowicz/

A small study by researchers in the United States has concluded that this is a safe approach that allows the errant lymphocytes to re-learn how they should behave and the effect can last for years.

Scientists have long believed that any cure for type 1 diabetes in particular where the body’s immune system cells attack insulin producing cells in the pancreas would mean halting the autoimmune attack in the first place while regenerating or transplanting working beta cells.

But Dr. Yong Zhao, an associate scientist at Hackensack University Medical Centre in New Jersey, and his team have developed the new approach to the problem which is basically educating the immune cells that had been destroying beta cells so they stop attacking them.

In earlier trials, the treatment showed significant promise with up to a year of data. The researchers also showed that the treatment was safe. The current study looked at four years of data on nine type 1 diabetes patients in China.

To see how well the treatment works, the researchers measured C-peptide, a protein fragment that’s a by-product of insulin production. Two people with type 1 diabetes who received a stem cell educator treatment shortly after diagnosis, five and eight months, still had normal C-peptide production and didn’t need insulin four years after a single treatment.

Another type 1 patient who had been diagnosed four years previously still had improvements in C-peptide levels, but wasn’t considered in remission. The remaining six people with type 1 saw decreases in their C-peptide levels over time. The study authors said this suggests more than one treatment might be needed.

Researchers also looked at six patients with severe, long standing type 2 diabetes over 15 to 24 years and found that one treatment helped four patients achieve normal C-peptide levels and maintain them over the four year follow-up.

‘Because this was a first trial, patients just got one treatment. Now we know it’s very safe so patients can receive two or three treatments. For the four type 2 patients their C-peptide is very stable after one treatment,’ Zhao said.

In addition to helping people with diabetes, Zhao believes that the treatment could help with other autoimmune diseases, too. These might include alopecia areata, which causes significant and sudden hair loss, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Sjogren’s syndrome.

Julia Greenstein is vice president of discovery research at diabetes charity JDRF, described the research as ‘intriguing’ but said more work needs to be done to reproduce the results on a larger scale. Zhao is now planning a clinical trial in the US.