Type I diabetes is a nasty, nasty disease. For reasons that remain unexplained, the body’s immune system begins attacking insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, leaving the sufferer with a dangerous condition. It’s estimated that 80,000 children are born with the disease every year. It’s a grave medical problem, but we are tantalizingly close to a cure.
Doug Melton, a researcher at Harvard, has managed to use embryonic stem cells to create the millions of cells needed for, essentially, beta-cell transplants. He’s been chasing this for twenty-three years, ever since his own son was born with Type I diabetes, so, yeah, he’s getting Dad of the Year for this one.
There are some caveats, here. Melton has been working in animal trials, which have been enormously promising, but he still needs to conduct human trials, which are a long and tricky business to be in. So we’re not there yet, and there may still be problems to be addressed.
And even if it is cleared, the costs will be high. Stem cell treatments for cancer, usually involving bone marrow, can cross the $100,000 threshold at disturbing speed. In the short term, this will largely be a cure limited to those who can afford it or have insurers who’d rather eat the $100,000 upfront cost than pay for insulin for decades.
That said, insurers may be more receptive than you think. Diabetes treatment can cost each patient between $55,000 and $130,000, and the price of insulin is spiraling ever upward. This is a serious medical problem that is only getting more expensive. Any cure, even one that costs a fortune up front, is better for everyone in the long term.