TIME medicine

10 Biggest Myths About the Flu

Flu shots here
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Don't get us wrong, we're all for washing your hands with soap and water. But it's not enough to stop the flu

Every flu season—which starts in October and peaks in January and February in the U.S.—as many as 20% of Americans get sick with a virus that can cause serious, even lethal complications (not to mention the general awfulness of a fever, chills, congestion, and body aches). So how come there are still so many myths and rumors about the flu? While officials aren’t predicting whether this year’s influenza will be better or worse than in years past, it’s smart to make sure you know the truth about this dreaded virus and what you can do to reduce your risk of catching it.

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You can catch the flu from the flu shot

No, you can’t. Really. This longstanding rumor just won’t die no matter how often experts debunk it. “The flu vaccine is made with dead viral particles, and since the virus is not living, it can’t infect you,” explains Holly Phillips, M.D., a New York City internist and WCBS News medical contributor. The nasal-spray version of the vaccine, called the FluMist, (which is FDA-approved for kids and adults between ages two and 49 who are healthy and not pregnant) does contain a crippled version of live flu virus. However, it still can’t make you sick, says Dr. Phillips. This misconception may stem from the fact that it takes 2 weeks for your body to form antibodies to the vaccine and fully protect you. So if you pick up a cold or the flu before or just after rolling up your sleeve, don’t blame your runny nose and sore throat on the shot.

Young, healthy people don’t need to worry about the flu

“While it’s true that influenza is most threatening to the very young, the elderly, and people with underlying illnesses, it can still cause severe symptoms in otherwise healthy people,” says Dr. Phillips. That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone get the shot, preferably early in flu season. Even if you’re not in a high-risk group, getting the shot can stop you from transmitting the virus to more vulnerable people. “The more people who get the shot, the more we cut down on the amount of influenza circulating in the population, which can protect your grandmother or child,” says Dr. Phillips. Even if you don’t regularly interact with kids or seniors, take a few minutes and get the shot—at your doctor’s office, local pharmacy, or community health center. You can’t pass on a virus you never got in the first place.

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The flu includes gastrointestinal symptoms

As miserable as symptoms of the flu are, digestive distress is rarely one of them. What’s politely called the “stomach flu” is a colloquial term that refers to a group of viruses that primarily cause vomiting and diarrhea, says Dr. Phillips. “These viruses are not influenza,” she says. That’s not to say that the flu doesn’t occasionally lead to some gastrointestinal issues; some sufferers do experience nausea and even vomiting. But if you develop these symptoms without any of the classic flu tip-offs, you’re probably dealing with an entirely different germ.

Pregnant women can’t get a flu shot

On the contrary, all pregnant women should get the jab as soon as possible. “The flu shot is very safe for pregnant women, and getting it can even protect the baby for the first few months of life, when he or she is not old enough to get the flu shot yet but is very vulnerable to illness,” says Dr. Phillips. (Babies at least six months old are eligible for the vaccine.) Antibodies that form in response to the shot will not only protect you from the flu, they will protect your baby after birth and be delivered via breast milk, according to the CDC. Pregnancy causes immune, heart, and lung changes that can increase your risk for a bad case of flu, which can affect your pregnancy. “High fevers and severe infections can lead to serious pregnancy complications and even premature labor,” says Dr. Phillips.

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You can stop the flu by washing your hands a lot

Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for washing your hands with soap and water. But it’s not enough to stop the flu. Influenza is spread through the air via droplets of saliva from a person who is contagious (which starts a day before symptoms show and up to seven days after). The droplets can land on you and get into your nose, mouth, and eyes. You can also pick up the flu by touching contaminated surfaces (the flu can live up to eight hours on surfaces, according to the CDC), then touching your hand to your face. So wash your hands with soap and water and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. This slashes your risk somewhat, Dr. Leavey says. It’s also important to stand at least six feet from anyone with the flu; the airborne droplets can’t travel farther than that. Disinfect common areas in your home or workplace if someone with the flu spent time there. And above all, get vaccinated.

If you get the flu, the shot didn’t work

The flu vaccine isn’t like vaccines that protect you against measles or polio, which offer 100% protection. Usually, the flu shot is only about 60 to 90% effective. That’s because multiple strains circulate every year, and it’s difficult for scientists to predict perfectly which strains will be dominant. “If you do get the flu after going for the shot, it just means that you contracted a different strain that wasn’t included in the vaccine,” says Dr. Phillips. If this happens, there is an upside: your symptoms will likely be less severe, since the shot will probably be at least somewhat effective against the strain you have, she adds. And keep in mind that to the CDC, a flu shot is a success if it prevents hospitalizations and deaths, not if you sail through the season without a sniffle.

Antibiotics can fight the flu

There’s no point in bugging your doctor—antibiotics don’t work on viruses. That said, there are Rx antiviral meds that might help. Tamiflu is the best known; this drug has been shown to cut the course of the disease by 1-2 days, if you take it within 48 hours of the first sign of flu symptoms. These are generally recommended only for those at high risk of complications. “The effects are relatively modest,” says Dr. Phillips. “Once you have the flu, you’re going to be miserable regardless. Prevention with the flu shot is a better approach.” Other meds that can offer some relief include over-the-counter fever reducers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, as well as congestion fighters. Best bet? Stay home, get some rest, drink lots of fluids, and wait it out (but be on your guard for serious complications).

Bell’s palsy is a side effect of the flu shot

Bell’s palsy is a condition that causes weakness or paralysis on one side of the face. It’s usually temporary, clearing up after several weeks, and it’s typically thought to be triggered by a viral infection, such as herpes simplex (the virus responsible for cold sores) or Epstein-Barr, which leads to mononucleosis. How did the flu get into the mix? Decades ago, a few isolated cases of people developing Bell’s palsy after getting a flu vaccine were reported. Yet no link was ever established showing that one caused the other, says Dr. Phillips. The overwhelming consensus is that the two have nothing to do with each other, adds Dr. Leavey.

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Flu shots can cause Alzheimer’s

The flu shot doesn’t cause any illness or condition, and that includes Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Leavey. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that leads to memory loss and other cognitive changes. Why some people develop Alzheimer’s is not fully understood, and that opens the door to lots of speculation—which seems to be how the rumor linking the flu jab to Alzheimer’s got its start. “The connection also has to do with the fact that senior citizens are strongly advised to get a flu shot every year, so people associate old age with flu shots, the way they associate old age with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Or an elderly person who had a flu shot begins showing signs of memory loss months later. The two are unrelated, yet people conclude that the vaccine had something to do with it.”

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME medicine

Child Medication Errors Occur Every 8 Minutes, Study Says

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According to a study in the journal Pediatrics

Every eight minutes, a child experiences a medication error like taking the wrong drug or consuming too much, according to a new study published on Monday.

Researchers looked at out-of-hospital medication errors in the National Poison Database System from 2002 to 2012 and found that more 200,000 mishaps are reported to U.S. poison control centers every year, noted the study in the journal Pediatrics. In about 30% of those cases, the child is under age 6.

Nearly 82% of medication errors were from liquid medicine, followed by tablets and capsules at 14.9%, the researchers said. They added that errors increased as kids’ ages decreased, and that 27% of the mistakes occurred when a child was accidentally given the same medication too soon.

Twenty-five of the children died as a result of the errors during the 11-year study period, but overall the vast majority of the cases did not require treatment.

The study authors argue that medication errors are a significant public-health problem that needs more attention. One way to cut down, they suggest, is by making drug packaging and their labels more clear when it comes to directions and dosing.

TIME medicine

6 Common Prescription Mistakes You Might Be Making

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In honor of Talk About Your Medicines Month

It’s hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t a pill—sometimes dozens of different ones—to treat so many health conditions. Today, 70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug and more than half take two, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While the healing powers of modern medicine are pretty awesome, you still need to be cautious when it comes to any drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that medication errors cause at least one death every day and injure 1.3 million people annually.

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In honor of Talk About Your Medicines Month, read up on common mistakes to avoid with your prescriptions.

You get the brand name over generic

Yes, they’re cheaper, but generic drugs are just as effective as the brand name. To be approved by the FDA, a generic drug must have the same active ingredients as the original. The only difference is the inactive ingredients, like dye or preservatives, which don’t affect the action of the drug. “Small variations in the generic are permissible,” says Kim Russo, PharmD, chief clinical officer at VUCA Health, a medication video service available at certain pharmacies nationwide. “Most of the time we don’t even medically notice it.” If you don’t tolerate one of the inactive ingredients well, then you might need the brand name. Otherwise, save yourself the money and go with the generic.

You mix your meds with the wrong foods (or drinks)

Always check what foods or drinks could interact with your medicine. One to watch out for: grapefruit and grapefruit juice. “As many as 50 drugs on the market can be affected,” Russo says. Depending on the drug, grapefruit juice can reduce or increase absorption­—the latter could lead to overdose. Then there are certain drugs that shouldn’t be taken with calcium-rich foods because they interfere with your body’s absorption of the medication, Russo says. Plus, there are medications that cause you to lose or retain potassium, so you’ll want to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether you need to start (or stop) eating certain foods. And you should ask your doctor if it’s OK to drink alcohol while taking your prescription. “Alcohol can turn possible mild side effects into dangerous ones,” Russo says. The FDA has more info on bad food-drug combos.

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You don’t check your Rx label at the pharmacy

To save yourself the stress of a medication error, make sure you have the right prescription before you leave the pharmacy. If your pharmacist only asks for your name at the counter, provide another identifier, like a birth date or address. That way you’ll know the drug is filled under the correct person, Russo says. Another good idea: open your bag. “I would read the label and open the prescription to see if you recognize it,” Russo says. A different color or shape may just mean the drug is coming from a new generic manufacturer, but it never hurts to be safe.

You don’t talk to your pharmacist

Most pharmacists will ask if you have questions about your medication. But when’s the last time you actually voiced one? It’s never a good idea to rush through picking up a new prescription. That’s the time to find out what the medicine is for as well as the benefits and possible side effects or drug interactions, Russo says. If you’ve been on the medication a while and have noticed unexplained changes lately, say a rash or constant headache, that’s also a good time to speak up. On three or more medications? “It’s a great idea once a year to make an appointment with your pharmacist to review them,” Russo suggests.

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You store your meds in the wrong spots

The number one worst place you could keep your medication is the bathroom. That’s because moisture can degrade medicine, Russo says. Medications also need to be protected from light. “That’s why prescription vials are the amber color, to block UV light,” Russo says. Still, you should keep medication in a dark place, especially if you have a pill organizer that’s clear and light can get through. Certain drugs shouldn’t be taken out of the vial at all. Some medications, like insulin, might need to be refrigerated initially, but can be taken out to warm up before injecting and then stored at room temperature for a set number of days. Just keep in mind some drugs are meant to be kept in the fridge and they can lose their effectiveness if left at room temperature for even a few hours, Russo says. Check with your pharmacist to know how long is too long.

You don’t dispose of old meds properly

Most pills remain effective up to two years after the expiration date, Russo says. When it’s time to get rid of them, though, don’t count on the toilet as your go-to disposal method. “Flushing certain cardiac, seizure, or hormone medications can be very harmful to the environment,” Russo says. Only a few medications, including ones for pain, are recommended by the FDA for disposal by flushing. The rest you should throw in a plastic bag with kitty litter or used coffee grounds so kids or pets won’t be tempted to eat them. Then, the bag’s ready for the trash. You could also ask your pharmacist about upcoming medicine take-back programs.

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This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price ZU_09; Getty Images

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME medicine

Stem Cells Allow Nearly Blind Patients to See

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Stem cells could lead to new treatments for eye disorders Photography by Peter A. Kemmer—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Embryonic stem cells can be turned into a therapy to help the sight of the nearly blind

In a report published in the journal Lancet, scientists led by Dr. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology, provide the first evidence that stem cells from human embryos can be a safe and effective source of therapies for two types of eye diseases—age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 60, and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, a rarer, inherited condition that can leave patients legally blind and only able to sense hand motions.

In the study, 18 patients with either disorder received transplants of retinal epithelial cells (RPE) made from stem cells that came from human embryos. The embryos were from IVF procedures and donated for research. Lanza and his team devised a process of treating the stem cells so they could turn into the RPE cells. In patients with macular degeneration, these are the cells responsible for their vision loss; normally they help to keep the nerve cells that sense light in the retina healthy and functioning properly, but in those with macular degeneration or Stargardt’s, they start to deteriorate. Without RPE cells, the nerves then start to die, leading to gradual vision loss.

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The transplants of RPE cells were injected directly into the space in front of the retina of each patient’s most damaged eye. The new RPE cells can’t force the formation of new nerve cells, but they can help the ones that are still there to keep functioning and doing their job to process light and help the patient to see. “Only one RPE can maintain the health of a thousand photoreceptors,” says Lanza.

The trial is the only one approved by the Food and Drug Administration involving human embryonic stem cells as a treatment. (Another, the first to gain the agency’s approval, involved using human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury, but was stopped by the company.) Because the stem cells come from unrelated donors, and because they can grow into any of the body’s many cells types, experts have been concerned about their risks, including the possibility of tumors and immune rejection.

MORE: Early Success in a Human Embryonic Stem Cell Trial to Treat Blindness

But Lanza says the retinal space in the eye is the ideal place to test such cells, since the body’s immune cells don’t enter this space. Even so, just to be safe, the patients were all given drugs to suppress their immune system for one week before the transplant and for 12 weeks following the surgery.

While the trial was only supposed to evaluate the safety of the therapy, it also provided valuable information about the technology’s potential effectiveness. The patients have been followed for more than three years, and half of the 18 were able to read three more lines on the eye chart. That translated to critical improvements in their daily lives as well—some were able to read their watch and use computers again.

“Our goal was to prevent further progression of the disease, not reverse it and see visual improvement,” says Lanza. “But seeing the improvement in vision was frosting on the cake.”

TIME medicine

FDA Approves Combined Hepatitis Drug

Harvoni
Harvoni, the first single medication to treat hepatitis C, was recently approved by the FDA. Gilead Sciences

Harvoni is the third hepatitis C drug approved in the past year

The Food and Drug Administration approved the first single medication to treat hepatitis C on Friday, green-lighting one pill in the place of multiple treatments. The new drug, Harvoni, is the third hepatitis C drug approved in the past year.

“With the development and approval of new treatments for hepatitis C virus, we are changing the treatment paradigm for Americans living with the disease,” said FDA official Edward Cox.

Harvoni, developed by Gilead Sciences, will be the first hepatitis drug to require a pill only once daily. A full 12-week treatment will cost $94,500, less than existing treatments, Reuters reports.

TIME Obesity

Why Brown Fat May Be the Key to Weight Loss

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Can you think your way thinner?

Not all fats we eat are created equal. We all know that, trying to dodge the less healthy ones that come from animals and dairy products and load up on those less likely to clog our arteries and add to our waistlines.

But it turns out that even after we consume fat, we store it in different forms as well, and scientists reporting in the journal Cell have identified a pathway in the brain that can direct our bodies to convert stubborn waistline-growing fat into a different fat that’s easier to burn off.

MORE: Having The Right Kind of Fat Can Protect Against Diabetes, Study Says

Brown fat, so-called because it is rich in the darker hued energy factories of cells known as mitochondria, is a calorie-hungry machine. It consumes a lot of energy and generates just as much, mostly in the form of heat. That’s why brown fat is more common in newborns, who need to be protected from getting chilled after nine months in the toasty womb. As we age and are better able to regulate our body temperature, we lose brown fat, and until recently scientists thought most adults had little brown fat, if any.

Now researchers at Yale School of Medicine have identified the process that turns white fat, the more common kind in the average adult body and the primary culprit in weight gain, into the energy-consuming brown fat.

MORE: How Now, Brown Fat? Scientists Are Onto a New Way to Lose Weight

Working with mice, the scientists honed in on a set of neurons in the brain that regulate the body’s energy balance, including the breakdown of glucose, which is the primary source of fuel for most cells. When mice fast, for example, their bodies shift into a type of emergency mode, conserving energy and shutting off systems and cells that require high amounts of energy, such as the heat-generating brown fat cells. Fasting resembles times of starvation, so evolutionarily, this makes sense; when food is scarce, the body shunts its energy toward essential processes, such as keeping the heart pumping and getting oxygen to the brain.

Xiaoyong Yang, an associate professor of comparative medicine and physiology at Yale, showed that this switch to conserve energy is intimately tied to hunger signals in the brain. “We showed that hunger itself is a signal that controls the browning of white fat, so the brain can actually control the browning of white fat.”

That means it’s the brain that regulates what type of fat, and how much of it, is burned. In obese animals, Yang found, these hunger signals are dysfunction; overweight and obese mice eat regardless of whether they are hungry, so the normal physical signals from the stomach don’t function properly. Heavier animals continuously feel hungry, even if they’ve eaten enough for their energy needs. That perpetuates the cycle of obesity, since it shuts off the transformation of white fat into energy-consuming brown fat, and therefore keeps more fat in an inert, pound-packing form.

“Obese animals, and people, lose the response to hunger,” he says. “Although there is plenty of food and plenty of energy, the hunger neurons send a false message that the body needs to conserve energy, not burn it.”

Eventually, he says, it might be possible to intervene with the hunger signal anywhere along its journey from the brain to the fat cells, and that may shift the balance in favor of burning fat rather than storing it, which might open the door to weight loss. But calibrating the switch will be critical, since favoring the burning of fat can also lead to other physiological problems such as wasting and malnutrition. “You don’t want to set the body’s energy balance to zero,” says Yang. “You want to reset it to normal levels.”

TIME diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes Treatment Gets Boost from Stem Cells

Human stem cell derived beta cells
Insulin-making cells grown from stem cells glow green two weeks after they are transplanted into mice (c) Douglas Melton 2014

Scientists started with stem cells and created the first insulin-making cells that respond to changes in glucose

Scientists are closer to a potential stem cell treatment for type 1 diabetes.

In a new article in the journal Cell, Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (and one of the 2009 TIME 100) and his colleagues describe how they made the first set of pancreatic cells that can sense and respond to changing levels of sugar in the blood and churn out the proper amounts of insulin.

It’s a critical first step toward a more permanent therapy for type 1 diabetics, who currently have to rely on insulin pumps that infuse insulin when needed or repeated injections of the hormone in order to keep their blood sugar levels under control. Because these patients have pancreatic beta cells that don’t make enough insulin, they need outside sources of the hormone to break down the sugars they eat.

MORE: Stem-Cell Research: The Quest Resumes

Melton started with two types of stem cells: those that come from excess embryos from IVF procedures, and those that can be made from skin or other cells of adults. The latter cells, known as iPS cells, have to be manipulated to erase their developmental history and returned back to an embryonic state. They then can turn into any cell in the body, including the pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin. While the embryonic stem cells from IVF don’t require this step, they aren’t genetically matched to patients, so any beta cells made from them may cause immune reactions when they are transplanted into diabetic patients.

Both techniques, however, produced similar amounts of insulin-making beta cells—something that would have surprised Melton a few years ago. But advances in stem cell technology have made even the iPS cells pretty amenable to reprogramming into beta cells. Melton’s group tested more than 150 different combinations of more than 70 different compounds, including growth factors, hormones and other signaling proteins that direct cells to develop into specific cell types, and narrowed the field down to 11 factors that efficiently turned the stem cells into functioning beta cells.

MORE: Woman Receives First Stem Cell Therapy Using Her Own Skin Cells

The two populations of stem cells churned out hundreds of millions of insulin-making cells, which is the volume of cells that a patient with type 1 diabetes would need to cure them and free them from their dependence on insulin. An average patient, says Melton, would need one or two “large coffee cups” worth of cells’, each containing about 300 million cells. Melton and his team then conducted a series of tests in a lab dish to confirm that the cells were functioning just like normal beta cells by producing more insulin when they were doused with glucose, and less when glucose levels dropped. That was a huge advance over previous efforts to make beta cells from stem cells—those cells could produce insulin, but they didn’t respond to changing levels of glucose and continuously pumped out insulin at will.

Next, the scientists transplanted about five million of the stem cell derived beta cells into healthy mice, and two weeks later, gave them an injection of glucose. About 73% of the mice produced enough insulin to successfully break down the sugar. What’s more, that was similar to the proportion of mice responding to glucose after getting a transplant of beta cells from human cadavers. That was especially encouraging since some type 1 diabetics currently receive such transplants to keep their diabetes under control. “We’ve now shown that we can produce an inexhaustible source of beta cells without having to do to cadavers,” he says.

MORE: First Stem Cells Cloned From Diabetes Patient, Thanks to Egg Donors

Taking the tests even further, the group showed that even mice that were already diabetic showed improved blood sugar levels after receiving a transplant of the stem cell beta cells—in other words, the transplanted cells effectively cured their diabetes. “We showed you can give three sequential challenges of glucose—similar to breakfast, lunch and dinner—and the cells responded properly,” says Melton.

But he acknowledges that as exciting as the advance is, it only solves half the problem for those with type 1 diabetes. The reason their beta cells aren’t able to make enough insulin may be due to the fact that they are attacked by the body’s own immune system for reasons that scientists still don’t understand. So the next step in turning these findings into a potential therapy is to find ways to protect the beta cells from destruction, either by encapsulating them in a mesh-like device similar to a molecular tea bag, or finding ways to genetically modify them to carry ‘don’t attack me’ proteins, the same way that fetal cells do so that an expectant mother’s immune cells don’t attack the growing baby.

MORE: Stem Cell Miracle? New Therapies May Cure Chronic Conditions like Alzheimer’s

“It’s taken me 10 to 15 years to get to this point, and I consider this a major step forward,” says Melton, who began researching ways to treat type 1 diabetes when first his son, then his daughter were diagnosed with the condition more than two decades ago. “But the longer term plan includes finding ways to protect these cells, and we haven’t solved that problem yet.”

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