• Question: can diabetes be cured? if not is anyone working on it?

    Asked by sazzy to Matt on 18 Mar 2015.
    • Photo: Matthew Moore

      Matthew Moore answered on 18 Mar 2015:

      Hi @sazzy, great question!

      Firstly there is diabetes type 1 and type 2. Type one is early onset and was thought to be largely genetic at first, it seems now that it is actually caused by a stomach virus, or some other biological stress early in life, preventing this might prevent type 1 diabetes.

      Type 2 diabetes can largely be avoided with a healthy lifestyle, though there seems to be a large degree of genetic susceptibility.

      As for curing type 1 diabetes (and probably type2), it’s really very complicated. The cells in the pancreas which make insulin have been destroyed by the immune system, repairing these with some drug would be very difficult. For many people with diabetes or other such illnesses it can be frustrating sometimes that a cure always seems right round the corner, this is largely to do with the press sensationalising research. Science works incrementally, many many scientists are working on diabetes and its slow and complicated work at times and is very difficult to see when exactly a treatment (a ‘cure’) might be around the corner.

      However, science and medicine have advanced an amazing amount in the past 20 years or so and it’s hard to imagine quite how much better it will be again in another 20 years! This generation could very well see the end of many of these diseases.

      Recently for example, researchers at Harvard have been working on stem cell techniques to ‘fix’ the pancreatic beta cells which normally produce insulin but are damaged in type 1 diabetes. This is incredibly exciting work and is a whole new approach to solving this problem.

      These stem cells were introduced into diabetic mice and actually helped their pancreas restore and begin producing insulin again! You can see how this is very exciting, but even if this will transfer over to humans, trials and further experiments could go on for 10-15 years before a treatment is available. It could also be something of a dead end if this doesn’t work in the same way in humans or has some currently unforeseen side-effect!