Type 1 diabetes is a devastating disease for which there has never been a cure. Until now?

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Photo by David Moruzzi on Unsplash.

Scientists are fond of reflecting on the many great as-yet unanswered questions of humanity.

They certainly have a point.

Woven within our collective scientific knowledge, throughout the historical record, even in our understanding of human anatomy, there are holes big enough to admit a Boeing 747.

As the century turns, or at some other centennial mark, a Greek chorus routinely emerges, a scientific consensus of confident predictions about what can be known, what might soon be known, what will never be known, and “What Remains to Be Discovered.

There are still so many unsolved mysteries in science. Quantum physicists are even now eagerly looking for the TOE, the great unifying Theory of Everything which will explain why the physical laws governing large objects- Newtonian physics- seem to be at odds with the laws governing very small objects- quantum physics.

Quantum particles seem, according to the foremost mystified authorities, to be demonstrably capable of faster than light communication- which Newtonian physics stubbornly insists is impossible.

Other mysteries persist as well. The Missing Link is still missing, as is the tomb of Alexander the Great, which, among so many others, has never been found. Why humans age, why we need sleep, how microscopic life can be sustained near volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean; all questions which remain unanswered in the Information Age.

Then there is perhaps the biggest mystery of all: We ourselves.

Human beings. Look around the natural world; one of these things is not like the other. Charles Darwin, observant as he was, was like the kid in class who took attendance and forgot to count himself.

Our nearest animal relative is confined to equatorial Africa, a tiny spot on the globe a little bigger than New Jersey. The greatest scientific achievement of the chimpanzee to date is improvising simple tools.

Humans have been to the moon and back. We’ve explored the bottom of the ocean. We split the atom. We live everywhere.

We don’t seem to adapt to our environments so much as adapt our environments to better suit ourselves. We’re pretty good at it, too. In our 10,000+ year quest to improve on camping, the printing press, internal combustion engine and pentium processor are none too shabby.

Yet, in spite of how far we’ve come, scientists- and prominent ones- are fond of declaring, “Here mankind has gone, and no further.”

Certain things, we are periodically told, will never be known.

A map of the human genome, for instance. As the year 2000 approached, top scientists confidently predicted the human genome would never be mapped during the lifetime of any person living at the time.

A scant few years later, they were proven wrong. The Human Genome Project, began in 1990, concluded in unqualified success in 2003. Our human blueprint was revealed for the first time.

With that breakthrough, a new era of scientific research was born. New lines of inquiry evolved, diverged and converged again. New ethical questions emerged, including about the use of human embryonic stem cells. New possibilities gave rise to new theories and experiments.

A new frontier of cures, treatments and therapeutics became possible. And Dr. Doug Melton embarked on a quest to cure his two children of Type 1 diabetes.

“Sam” and “Emma” became the company “Semma”. 20 years and $50 million dollars later, Dr. Melton‘s dream may have just cured the first Type 1 diabetes patient in history.

After a lifetime of being stalked by his life-threatening condition, Mr. Brian Shelton wept when he did his first post-meal blood-sugar test after receiving the groundbreaking treatment and found it normal.

Dr. Melton and his team were able to convert stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic “islet cells”, which are responsible for regulating blood sugar. Mr. Shelton, after receiving the cells, seems to be able to produce insulin like a healthy person.

For the 1.5 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes, this news represents a reason for much cautious optimism. There are certainly a few caveats- it will be at least another five years before the treatment is available, it is likely to be very expensive, especially at first, and like organ transplants, it requires the use of anti-rejection drugs forever.

The treatment, and its astonishing result, is also yet to undergo peer review. A great deal more research and study is needed, in particular of the long-term effects and potential downsides of anti-rejection drugs- which generally work by suppressing the immune system in order to prevent it from attacking the foreign cells.

Even with the potential downsides, this breakthrough represents hope for the 1.5 million Americans living with Type 1 diabetes. Victims of this terrible disease are at increased risk of blindness, amputation and dying during their sleep, when the body’s blood sugar levels naturally fall.

For diabetes patients, the risk of falling into a diabetic coma from which they may never awaken is a specter in their lives from diagnosis until death. A cure is the last, best hope of many.

This promising new cure, still in the early stages, kindles new hope in others suffering from as-yet incurable diseases, too. It will also go a long way towards improving public perception of stem cell therapies, and especially those which use controversial embryonic stem cells.

“Though science is a fascinating endeavor for those of us in the laboratory, we should remember that public support of biomedical research typically relates to unmet clinical need,” wrote M William Lensch for the National Institute of Health in 2011 in a white-paper entitled Public perception of stem cell and genomics research. “Investments in the HGP and hPSC research alike have been sold, in part, by articulating their potential to improve human health.”

“Many benefits have already come to pass from this research and more are in store,” wrote Lensch. “Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts within laboratories and clinics, a great many people continue to suffer to the point of desperation. Societal expectations for the fruits of stem cell and personal genomics research are high but the general understanding of each, particularly their limitations, is low. This gap in public understanding is a particular concern, especially when it comes to the evaluation of personal medical risk or the drafting of new legislation to regulate science.”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)