For the first time, scientists have changed human stem cells into functional insulin-producing cells in mice, potentially promising a breakthrough in treatment for those suffering from type 1 diabetes. The study was published in Nature Cell Biology.

Sufferers with type 1 diabetes lose insulin due to their immune system destroying pancreatic cells, and have historically needed to introduce insulin into their body manually. Such people, despite treatment, have an increased risk of kidney failure, heart disease and stroke.

As the researchers observed cells developing in the pancreas, they realised that the cells separate from the rest of the pancreas and arrange themselves into pancreatic islets. When they artificially separated pancreatic stem cells into islet-like clusters in a petri dish, they found that the cells matured and functioned like regular insulin-producing cells do, and produced insulin when transplanted into mice to regulate blood sugar levels.

The team is now working on solving the remaining problems with the treatment, including whether CRISPR can be brought in to change the stem cells enough that they could fly under the radar of the overactive immune system.