Hundreds of thousands of people suffer from hereditary diabetes, a condition that destroys cells in the pancreas and leaves the body unable to regulate blood sugar levels.
Sufferers are forced to inject themselves with insulin everyday and adopt special diets to cope with the irreversible condition.
But now scientists claim a cure could be developed after cells in the liver were converted to insulin producers in research on mice.
They believe the process, described in the journal Developmental Cell, could one day lead to a permanent one-off cure for the disease.
Dr Lawrence Chan and his team at the the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, injected a gene into mice which converted stem cells in the liver to replace those damaged in the pancreas.
They discovered that the blood sugar of the mice returned to normal within a few weeks and remained that way for the rest of the animal’s natural life.
Liver cells have been coverted to insulin producers before but this is the first time scientists have understood the technique and believe eventually could lead to treatment for humans.
One obstacle is that in order for the gene called neurogenin3 to bond with a cell it needs to be transported by a virus which could be deadly to humans.
Dr. Vijay Yechoor, co-author, said: “The mice responded within a week. The levels of sugar in their blood plummeted to normal and stayed that way for the rest of their normal lives.”