Reengineering Life

Scientists Are Trying to Reverse Diabetes With Gene Editing

A new technique involving CRISPR could eliminate the need for insulin shots

Emily Mullin
Published in
5 min readMay 5, 2020
Photo illustration. Image: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

Reengineering Life is a series from OneZero about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.

In the 1990s, a handful of people with Type 1 diabetes underwent an experimental therapy in hopes of curing their disease. They received transplants of tissue containing insulin-producing cells from people who had recently died. The hope was that the cells in the donor tissue would make up for the recipients’ faulty ones.

These insulin-producing cells, known as beta cells, are damaged or depleted in the more than 34 million people in the United States — about 10% of the population — who have diabetes. Beta cells normally produce and release insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. But without these cells, people with diabetes need to take insulin regularly.

The transplants worked — temporarily, at least. Some patients no longer needed regular injections of insulin, but the effects wore off after a few months or years. The recipients also needed to take harsh immunosuppressant drugs so their bodies wouldn’t reject the transplanted tissue.

The therapy is far from ideal, but scientists haven’t given up on the idea of using beta cells to treat diabetes. Now, they think CRISPR could improve upon the idea.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, where some of the first of these transplants occurred, recently used the gene-editing technology CRISPR to correct stem cells from diabetic patients and turn them into fully functioning beta cells. After transferring the edited cells into mice with diabetes, the animals’ blood sugar normalized. The results were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on April 22.

Though the work was done using cells from patients with a rare form of the disease, the authors think the approach could eventually be used to treat Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

“We were able to reverse the diabetes in the mice in about a week,” Jeffrey Millman, an assistant professor of medicine and…



Emily Mullin

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.