A Type 1 diabetes patient is the first patient to be cured of the disease with a new treatment, a clinical trial report claims, paving the way for those who also hope to beat it.

Per The New York Times, the clinical trial by Vertex Pharmaceuticals has been testing a treatment for decades. Thirty years and $50 million later, the first patient is cured.

Brian Shelton, now 64, got his first cell infusion of stem cells, which act like insulin-producing pancreas cells that his body lacked.

His body now controls its insulin and blood sugar levels automatically. “It’s a whole new life,” Shelton said in The New York Times report. “It’s like a miracle.”

“It is a remarkable result,” Dr. Peter Butler, a diabetes expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in the report. “To be able to reverse diabetes by giving them back the cells they are missing is comparable to the miracle when insulin was first available 100 years ago.”

The study will continue for five years, involving 17 people with a severe case of Type 1 diabetes. This will give 9 million people who are suffering from this disease a chance at a major change in their life.

What is Type 1 diabetes?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin. Without insulin, blood sugar can build up in the bloodstream, instead of entering cells to be used for energy.

  • Type 1 diabetes is less common and diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults, but can develop at any age.
  • People suffering from this disease are at high risk for nerve damage, which can lead to amputations, heart disease, stroke, eye problems such as glaucoma and cataracts, and skin infections.
  • In 2019, it was the ninth leading cause of death, with 1.5 million deaths that year, according to the World Health Organization.

What’s next for research?

Currently, the cell infusion treatment requires cells that are within a class of immunosuppressants that depress the immune system, said professor Douglas Melton, whose lab pioneered the science behind the therapy, per The Harvard Gazette

Without the immunosuppressants, these cells would be rejected by the body. “We want to find a way to make cells by genetic engineering that are not recognized as foreign,” he said.

  • Melton sees this as a solvable problem — “When a woman has a baby, that baby has two sets of genes. It has genes from the egg, from the mother, which would be recognized as ‘self,’ but it also has genes from the father, which would be ‘non-self.’ Why does the mother’s body not reject the fetus? If we can figure that out, it will help inform our thinking about what genes to change in our stem cell-derived islets so that they could go into any person,” he said.

A healthy dose of skepticism

Dr. Scott Summers, chairman of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology at the University of Utah. thinks a lot of work is left to be done and he views this study with caution.

“At this point, we have only read about the results in one patient. The clinical trial is still ongoing, and the full set of results aren’t anticipated for several years. The paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed. A heated discussion is actually ongoing amongst scientists about whether it is ethical or appropriate to publicize data so early in the study,” he told the Deseret News.

The fact that it is a biotechnology company permits a marketing aspect that cannot be ignored. “It’s odd for a press release to occur so early in the study,” he added.

Summers also has some suspicion regarding Melton. Despite being an excellent scientist, he reacted to a huge paper five years ago. His group allegedly discovered a hormone that could stimulate the proliferation of insulin cells. But those findings could not be replicated.

So, Melton did what any ethical scientist would do — he retracted the paper.

“This is a good reminder that findings need to be rigorously evaluated and replicated by multiple groups before carving them in stone,” said Summers.

“Despite these concerns, I’m excited,” he added. “This discovery could have a transformative impact on our understanding and treatment of this insidious disease.”