This may mean that for people who have type 1 diabetes, which results from an autoimmune attack that destroys their pancreatic beta cells, might someday be able to use these cells to reconstruct functioning beta cells. A stem cell-based therapy would be a welcome alternative to organ transplants, which can lead to organ rejection or a lifetime of taking immune-suppressing drugs.
New beta cells would come from a patient's own body so there would be less likelihood of outright rejection. However, because type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, stem cell research will have to go hand-in-hand with treatments that inhibit the autoimmune attack on beta cells.
Stem cells, whether derived from embryos or adults, are considered "pluripotent," which means they have the ability to differentiate into many different cell types. Many scientists sees them as potential building blocks for organ reconstruction overall.
In a separate study, standard kidney cells have been found to be able to morph into cells that are needed for a specific function. Dr. Ivonne Schulman, an assistant professor of clinical medicine and nephrologist at the University of Miami's Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute in Florida, said that this is the first time that researchers have shown that kidney cells could be reprogrammed and made to behave like embryonic stem cells, meaning they have the potential to differentiate into other types of kidney cells.
"Two papers back-to-back show that two different kidney cell types are able to be reprogrammed. This is very significant. It could theoretically help all types of kidney disease. It just depends on the ability of these cells to differentiate back into the cell types needed for that disease."
Dr. Samuel Saltzberg, a transplant nephrologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago stated:
"This is a critical and important first step. We have quite a way to go to get to a point where we can impact kidney disease, especially in diseases when the whole organ needs to be repaired."
The current treatment for end-stage kidney disease includes dialysis and/or kidney transplantation. Dialysis, which outsources kidney function, is uncomfortable, time-consuming and costly.
Dr. Jeffrey I. Silberzweig, co-medical director of the Rogosin Institute Manhattan Dialysis Center in New York City concludes:
"The idea that you can have the ability to do stem cell transplants during the early stage of kidney disease and regenerate the damaged part of the kidney would be a tremendous benefit for patients and the country as a whole. The supply of kidneys available for transplantation is way behind the number of people who need them. If it reaches a point where this technology becomes practical, patients would fall over each other getting in line to do it."