CHICAGO (Reuters) - Giving children with type 1 diabetes an infusion of blood saved from their own umbilical cords helped reduce the severity of their disease, U.S. researchers said on Monday.
They said the blood — which is rich in immune regulatory cells — may re-start the children’s immune systems, but the effect likely will not last and will need more study.
“They are getting back their own cells and nothing else. We knew it would be very safe and the fact that we are seeing any benefit is a big bonus,” said Dr. Michael Haller of the University of Florida College of Medicine, who presented the study at the American Diabetes Association meeting in Chicago.
Haller said the study is one of the first to look at the use of cord blood to treat diabetes in children, which affects an estimated 176,500, or about 0.2 percent, of U.S. children.
“There’s a lot of promise but it’s cautious optimism at this point,” he said.
Type 1 diabetes, usually diagnosed in children and young adults, occurs when the immune system goes haywire and starts attacking itself, destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas needed to control blood sugar.
Haller said so far his team had studied 11 diabetic children aged 2 to 10 who were treated with their own cord blood. They were followed for between three months and 31 months.
Children given the cord blood had lower blood glucose levels and needed much less daily insulin therapy to control their diabetes than children with the disease who did not get the therapy.
Haller said the cord blood may be helping the kids by providing a type of immune cell that can keep the immune system from attacking the pancreas, holding the diabetes in check.
While cord blood also contains stem cells, which can differentiate into insulin-producing cells, Dr. Desmond Schatz, also of the University of Florida, said the researchers suspect the effect is related to the regulatory T cells in the cord blood.
The children who got cord blood had measurable increases in this type of immune-regulating cell.
While the findings are promising, the doctors do not believe they have found a lasting cure.
“Whatever caused that immune process to begin with didn’t go away, so the diabetes should come back,” Schatz said at a news briefing.
“We expect this effect will be transient but we will be able to use it in other combinations of therapies,” he said.
All the children in the study had the benefit of having their own umbilical cord blood stored, which some parents do in case it is needed for later therapy. It can be used to treat leukemia and some genetic diseases.
Haller said storage costs between $1,200 to $2,500 up front and then between $75 and $250 per year and that he is not ready to recommend cord blood storage based on his study. “It’s clearly worth expanded study to figure out what is going on and why,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said this year that parents should only bank cord blood if they have an older child with a condition that could benefit.