The research is the first to show that human stem cell transplants can successfully restore insulin production and reverse diabetes in mice.
Crucially, the team re-created the “feedback loop” that enables insulin levels to automatically rise or fall based on blood glucose levels.
Diabetes affects more than two million people in Britain.
After the stem cell transplant, the diabetic mice were weaned off insulin, a procedure designed to mimic human clinical conditions. Three to four months later, the mice were able to maintain healthy blood sugar levels even when being fed large quantities of sugar.
Transplanted cells removed from the mice after several months had all the markings of normal insulin-producing pancreatic cells.
The research was led by Timothy Kieffer, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, and scientists from the New Jersey-based BetaLogics, a division of Janssen Research & Development.
Prof Kieffer said: “We are very excited by these findings, but additional research is needed before this approach can be tested clinically in humans.
“The studies were performed in diabetic mice that lacked a properly functioning immune system that would otherwise have rejected the cells.
“We now need to identify a suitable way of protecting the cells from immune attack so that the transplant can ultimately be performed in the absence of any immunosuppression.’
The study was published online in the journal Diabetes.