Hope on the horizon: Stem cell technology holds promise for Type 1 Diabetes treatment

Dr. Marshall Dahl, Head of Divisions of Endocrinology, VGH, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, and Clinical Professor and Head, Endocrinology.

A VCH endocrinology team’s recent research outcomes reveal that stem cell therapy not only effectively regulates blood glucose levels but also reduces the necessity for daily insulin.

Patient Gurtaj Dhillon has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 27 years, paying close attention to his glucose levels to prevent complications and serious illness. He even sets his alarm every night to check his blood sugar while he sleeps.

For Gurtaj, new research from the Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) Diabetes Centre and the University of British Columbia (UBC) could be life-changing. “This brings me hope for freedom.”

Recent research outcomes reveal that a ground-breaking stem cell therapy for Type 1 diabetes not only effectively regulates blood glucose levels, but also reduces the necessity for daily insulin injections.

“This research is a significant step toward a functional cure for Type 1 diabetes,” said Dr. David Thompson, principal investigator at the Vancouver trial site, Director of the VGH Diabetes Centre, and Clinical Assistant Professor of Endocrinology at UBC.

While there is no permanent cure for Type 1 diabetes, an immune system condition that causes the pancreas stops making insulin, current treatment options include pancreas transplants and islet cell transplants. The former extracts insulin-producing islet cells from donors and injects them into recipients.

These two transplant methods are proven and successful, however, they require deceased donors and recipients must take immunosuppressant medication that causes side effects.

Stem cell research on the cutting edge

For the past four years, Dr. Thompson’s team has been investigating stem cell technology as a new source of islet cells that doesn’t require recipients to take immune suppressants. One study implants genetically modified stem cells that are undetectable to participants’ immune systems, while a second study implants stem cells inside micro-capsules that allow glucose to flow in and out while blocking any immune response from entering.

Remarkably, participants in the study are able to create their own insulin, according to Dr. Marshall Dahl, Head of Divisions of Endocrinology, VGH, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, and Clinical Professor and Head, Endocrinology, UBC.

“Most participants are still taking a little insulin, but when that’s combined with the insulin they’re making with the transplanted stem cells, their blood sugar levels are pretty stable, unlike just taking insulin on its own,” says Dr. Dahl.

Hope for the future is bright

The team’s work is garnering international attention for its innovative approach to treating Type 1 diabetes. Research results were recently published in Nature Biotechnology. The team is also fielding requests from patients wanting to participate, and physicians from around the world are applying to join the team so they can learn the methods and start their own research at home.

While a cure for Type 1 diabetes is still a ways off, it is in view.

“Each stem cell transplant brings even better results,” says Dr. Dahl. “We believe this is the direction that diabetes research is going and we are hopeful it will lead to a cure in our lifetimes.”

Want to learn more?

These research trials are continuing to recruit participants. People who are interested in participating and want to learn more can contact study coordinator Barbara Allan at

Find more information about Dr. Thompson here​.