NORTH-EAST scientists have helped make an important breakthrough in the quest to find a cure for diabetes.

In a world-first, a team including two stem cell scientists from Newcastle have proven that stem cells from umbilical cords can create insulin.

The Newcastle scientists, Professor Colin McGuckin and Dr Nico Forraz, aim to develop the technique and believe they might be able to start clinical trials on North-East patients within five years.

The hope is that by injecting patients with prepared cord blood stem cells, scientists can reverse type one diabetes and encourage the patient's body to start producing insulin again.

Prof McGuckin and Dr Forraz, from the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Newcastle University, established a worldwide reputation last October when they were the first in the world to create a miniature human liver by manipulating stem cells taken from the Newcastle Umbilical Cord Blood Bank.

In their latest research, they collaborated with colleagues in the US and France to see if they could manipulate stem cells from cord blood to produce insulin.

Not only did they produce insulin, they also found traces of a substance called C-peptide, which confirmed that the insulin was generated by the stem cells.

The researchers said: "Stem cells hold tremendous promise for the future of regenerative medicine.

"Remarkable advances have been made in the engineering of embryonic stem cells."

They pointed out that umbilical cord blood stem cells provided an alternative to stem cells derived from embryos, which are surrounded by ethical controversy.

Last year, Prof McGuckin and Dr Forraz had an audience with the Pope, in Rome, as part of efforts to persuade the Vatican's scientific advisors to be more positive about stem cell research.

The two were the first in the world to show it was possible to produce stem cells from the blood of umbilical cords, which is normally discarded after a baby is born.

Jo Brodie, of Diabetes UK, said: "The results of this research are interesting, and another step forward in stem cell research.

"Although, stem cell research is very much in its infancy, it provides a good source of study for better treatments, which could improve the lives of people with diabetes.

"We look forward to seeing how this research progresses."