I wrote this, as part of my work, in response to someone enquiring about paying for stem cell treatments for Type 2 diabetes. I think there is an awful lot of work to be done in this area before that’s doable, but am aware that there is research into bone marrow stem cells and Type 2 diabetes (ie it’s a bit early, but it’s not actually a crazy idea).
There have been some small trials where people have received stem cell transplants, under very particular conditions, to ‘see what happens’ and to get an idea of the safety (or not) of doing this.
There is nothing wrong with a clinical trial to see if transplanting stem cells can help but prospective patients are not usually asked to pay. Also there are very strict regulations for clinical trials in place to protect participants. People travelling abroad for stem cell transplants do not have this protection if anything goes wrong. The science journal Nature has an interesting blog post on charging people for unproven stem cell treatments http://blogs.nature.com/reports/theniche/2008/03/patients_paying_for_stem_cells.html
At this stage it is not exactly clear how a stem cell transplant would help someone with Type 2 diabetes. As insulin resistance is generally the major problem (that is, insulin can still be produced by the cells of the pancreas but the body becomes less able to respond to it) then adding in more insulin-producing cells would not necessarily be an appropriate way to treat that problem.
The cells used in these transplants are generally the patient’s own bone marrow stem cells. These cells have the capacity to form a limited number of blood cells (including cells of the immune system) and they do not naturally form insulin-producing cells. While it is possible to modify cells in a laboratory to persuade them to secrete insulin the modified cells may not be very safe for transplantation.
I do want to stress that scientists are not discounting the possibility that transplanting bone marrow stem cells into people with Type 2 diabetes could help – it is possible that the presence of these blood-type cells could help to ‘rescue’ in some way the pancreatic cells from further damage and so improve blood glucose levels. It’s less likely that the cells would spontaneously form insulin-producing cells, but it’s not impossible.
A report of a recent trial (with 25 patients) suggested that this might be a possibility (http://www.physorg.com/news157534107.html) – but this research is at an early stage and it would be unlikely for patients to have to pay for this.
I would recommend this brief (eight pages) patients’ guide to stem cell treatments http://www.isscr.org/clinical_trans/pdfs/ISSCRPatientHandbook.pdf and seek advice from your own doctor before committing any money to unproven treatments.