The approach could someday aid treatment of the Type 1 form of the illness, which is usually diagnosed in childhood and accounts for about 5 per cent of diabetes cases in the U.S.
The disease kills insulin-making cells in the pancreas. People with Type 1 diabetes use shots or a small pump to supply the hormone, which is needed to control blood sugar.
The new work is a step toward providing genetically matched replacement cells for transplant, said Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute in New York. He led the research, which was reported online Monday in the journal Nature.
Doug Melton of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, who was not involved with the work, called the paper an impressive technical achievement. But he said he believed the cells would be useful as a research tool rather than a source of transplants. They could help scientists uncover what triggers Type 1 diabetes, he said, which could in turn lead to better therapies.
Scientists had previously made insulin cells that match diabetic patients by another means, so the new work gives researchers another option for comparison. Researchers are also exploring transplants of insulin-producing cells from cadavers as a potential treatment.
The latest work used a technique that partially resembles the process used to clone animals. Basically, scientists put DNA from the woman's skin cells into donated human eggs. The eggs were grown into early embryos. From these, the scientists removed stem cells, which can grow into any cell type in the body. These stem cells were turned into the insulin-producing cells.
Egli told reporters that these cells have shown promise in animal tests, but that he could not estimate a timetable for human experiments.
The new work is the third report of using the cloning approach to make human stem cells, and the first using the technique to create insulin-making cells.