Scientists are working on new methods which will make insulin injections for diabetics a thing of the past
Last week, a team of surgeons performed the world's first robotically assisted pancreas transplant on a women in Italy who suffers from type one diabetes.
With her new organ, the mother of two is now able to produce the correct amount of insulin - the hormone which regulates the amount of glucose in the body - and this has effectively cured her disease.
The news impresses Professor Michael Walker, a leading researcher in diabetes at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. But he is not convinced of the sustainability of the technique in a population where diabetes, he says, is an epidemic.
"The challenge is to make the process of converting stem cells into insulin-producing cells efficient enough to be applied to the general population," he says. "Therefore, new sources of insulin-producing cells are essential."
His hope is to find a way of creating a beta cell - the cell in the pancreas which produces and releases insulin - that can be transplanted to diabetic individuals using embryonic stem cells which can be divided in a dish, in other words cloned. But cells derived from one person are not compatible with another. Walker works with immunologists at the Weizmann Institute to devise methods which would overcome these problems.
"The challenge is to make it efficient enough to be applied to the general population," he explains. "A large amount of research has to be done. It's very important not to raise false hopes. I try to emphasise the fact that the research we're doing is really long term. The cure is not going to be in the clinic in the next few years."
Michael Walker: stem-cell research
The Glasgow-born scientist has been researching the pancreas and its role in producing insulin at the world-class scientific centre for over two decades. He is looking at how a healthy pancreas works in order to understand what goes wrong in a non-functioning one. It is called "Basic Research".
"Until we know what the normal mechanisms are, we are at a disadvantage in solving the underlying problem," he explains. "One of the things we focus on is how the insulin producing cell actually knows when and how much insulin to release into the bloodstream."
Walker is adamant that finding a cure for diabetes is preferable to treating it with insulin injections. "Scientific research usually comes up with better ways to treat the disease but ultimately we need to find a cure," he says.
But he insists that our greatest challenge is type two diabetes. "Type two diabetes can be considered a ticking time bomb for society," he warns. "It is increasing dramatically because it's associated with obesity. In fact, obesity carries a risk factor for a whole range of other problems like hypertension and cardiovascular disease. An individual who is overweight is 80 times more likely to get diabetes than a person of normal weight. About five per cent of the UK population has diabetes and 10 per cent of the population in the UK is obese. The frightening thing about those numbers is that they're on the rise. The prediction is that they'll probably double within 15 to 20 years."
Walker says that it is up to society to promote healthy living in order to combat diabetes. He calls upon parents to educate their children, schools to set an example by banning soft drinks machines and the government to discourage the sale of unhealthy snacks. While the reason for the link between obesity and diabetes is still unclear, it is still a fact, and the NHS is ultimately responsible for the footing bill.
"Although obesity and diabetes are linked, we still have a poor understanding of the basis for the link," he says. "We believe that high levels of fats in the blood of the obese individual damage the insulin producing cells. Diabetes is an extremely expensive disease to deal with, and the healthcare system is going to be hard put to come up with ways to deal with the problem."