A Blessing in Disguise

Bryan Liu ‘22

Type 1 diabetes has been a worldwide major health concern for decades. Currently there is no established cure for the condition, but management strategies have been, for the most part, sufficient in dealing with the disease. 


Medical experts and health officials recently uncovered a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Although it remains for the most part hypothetical as a cure, doctors have used gene editing to determine a means to reverse the effects of this diabetes variant.


Insulin is a protein created by the beta cells nestled in the pancreas; it aids in lowering blood sugar by prompting cells to take up glucose, a simple sugar. However, in the bodies of patients suffering from type 1 diabetes, their immune systems mistakenly destroy certain parts of the pancreas, called the islets of Langerhans, which contain the insulin-producing beta cells. After a while, the body stops regenerating beta cells and, as a result, ceases all insulin production, forcing patients to find other sources of insulin.


HIV/AIDS is another well-known disease within the medical community. The virus enters cells, replicating itself by converting its viral RNA into DNA using a process called reverse transcription. This is a language that the cell’s machinery can understand, so it then unknowingly uses the instructions encoded in that DNA to manufacture more copies of HIV. These new copies then leave the host and infect others, perpetuating the cycle.


By using innovations in gene therapy, scientists can remove the harmful genetic code of HIV and replace it with a gene that can restore insulin producing beta cells by suppressing the damaging code. 


Once the modified virus enters the pancreas, it will begin to infect host cells, in the process inserting the genetic sequence for the insulin gene into the cell’s DNA through reverse transcription. This treatment would allow the pancreas to regenerate its beta cells and resume insulin production.


However, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease characterized by the destruction of beta cells in the Langerhans islets, the mechanics of which are dictated by an individual’s genetic makeup, which thereby affects the body’s immune response toward islet beta cells. Scientists can apply similar gene therapy techniques to the immune system and consequently prevent the destruction of beta cells.


Gene editing is still in its infancy and the opportunity for medical conditions like diabetes has been, so far, very promising. Although there has been no clinical trial or even preclinical studies, the concept itself is a vast well of potential for not only medicine, but for the future of diabetes management.