Hundreds of thousands of diabetics could be freed from insulin injections thanks to a treatment made from their own skin.
Scientists have found a way of turning skin cells into healthy pancreatic cells, which could replace those damaged in type 1 diabetes.
The breakthrough could spell the end to the grind of insulin injections.
A more natural treatment should also cut the odds of developing the disabling and deadly complications of the disease, which range from heart attacks, strokes and blindness to nerve and circulatory damage and amputations.
In diabetes, the body struggles to produce or use insulin, a hormone needed to convert the sugar in food into energy – so new treatments are urgently needed.
The U.S. research capitalises on a technique that allows scientists to use a cocktail of vitamins, genes and other compounds to turn one type of cell into another.
The researchers, from the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California, San Francisco, found the right recipe to turn human skin cells into healthy, fully-functional versions of the pancreatic beta cells that are damaged in diabetes.
Grafted into a mouse, these cells worked well enough to stop the animals from developing the condition, the journal Nature Communications reports.
Although insulin-producing cells have been made before, the new technique is quicker and more practical.
In future, a sliver of skin could be taken from a patient’s arm and used to make trillions of healthy pancreatic beta cells.
A perfect match to the patient, these customised cells could be put back into their body to replace those damaged by their diabetes.
Researcher Dr Matthias Hebrok said: ‘Our results demonstrate for the first time that human adult skin cells can be used to efficiently and rapidly generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similar to human beta cells.’
His colleague, Dr Sheng Ding, said: ‘We can generate virtually unlimited numbers of patient-matched insulin-producing beta cells.’
The treatment, which is not yet ready for human use, would be aimed at people with type 1 diabetes.
This affects 400,000 Britons, including almost 30,000 children, and occurs when the immune system attacks and kills the insulin-producing cells.
However, it may also benefit some people with type 2 diabetes. The most common form of the condition, it is fuelled by obesity and rates are soaring as waistlines expand.
The cells could also be used to study diabetes and find new drug treatments.
Anna Morris, of the charity Diabetes UK, said: ‘The generation of insulin-producing pancreatic cells in the lab, that could be successfully transplanted into people with diabetes, is a very exciting area of research that could revolutionise the future treatment of the condition.
‘The results of this particular early-stage laboratory study, which has been carried out in mice, are very promising and we look forward to future investigations testing whether this method could be reproduced in humans, and ultimately developed as a treatment for diabetes.
‘It’s very exciting that research in this area is moving forward.’
Karen Addington, of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which part-funded the study, said: ‘Making cells efficiently from a person’s own tissue – especially something that is as easy to take as a sample of skin cells – is a really attractive way of making sure the immune system has as little reason as possible to reject new cells when given as a transplant.
‘Currently, people living with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin every day simply to stay alive.
‘There are of course many steps still to overcome before cells like the ones developed through this research can be used to free people from injections – and cure their type 1 diabetes.’