Researchers Generate Insulin Producing Cells from Stem Cells
Researchers at the University of California San Francisco have successfully created working insulin producing cells from stem cells. They hope one day to use these cells to replace damaged pancreatic beta cells in patients with Type 1 diabetes.
According to the researchers, the laboratory cells act like natural pancreatic beta cells. Previously, however, scientists could not get partially differentiated stem cells to fully mature. This meant that laboratory stem cells did not produce insulin. By re-examining the normal development of the pancreas, researchers unlocked the last phase of maturity.
Insulin Producing Cells from Stem Cells
In the last stage of pancreatic development, the beta cells separate to form a structure called the islets of Langerhans. Mimicking the natural development process, the researchers physically separated the semi-mature cells and clustered them into islet-like groups.
Following separation, the cells began responding to blood sugar by creating insulin. The manufactured islet clusters also continued to develop as units. The researchers then transplanted the laboratory cell clusters into healthy mice. The transplanted clusters began functioning normally within days.
The prospect of successfully transplanting lab-created cells into human subjects is now closer, thanks to this research. The next step in the process is taking place right now. Researchers are using gene editing techniques to allow the laboratory stem cells to be transplanted without triggering an immune response. If it works, transplanted laboratory cells could eventually provide a functional cure for Type 1 diabetes.
What is Type 1 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes was at one time called juvenile diabetes, although it can emerge at any age. Fewer than 5% of diabetic individuals have Type 1 diabetes. The condition is an autoimmune disorder that kills insulin producing pancreatic beta cells. Insulin regulates blood sugar levels. Once the immune system attacks them, the cells do not regenerate or produce insulin. Patients with the disorder must monitor their blood sugar levels and take synthetic insulin to avoid high blood sugar. Without close management, Type 1 diabetes patients would suffer organ damage, heart disease, blindness, vascular and nerve damage, and death.
Currently, most Type 1 diabetes patients test their blood sugar levels throughout the day. They also take insulin with meals. Some patients rely on insulin pumps to help manage blood sugar spikes. Carefully controlled diet also plays a role in diabetes management, but that relies heavily on patient compliance. About 1,000 seriously ill patients each year opt to have a pancreas transplant to correct the condition. Some researchers are also experimenting with transplanting only the islets of Langerhans into Type 1 diabetes patients. As with other organ transplants, patients could suffer transplant rejection and organ failure and must take immunosuppressants for life.
Other Type 1 Diabetes Research
Researchers are also looking more closely at why and how Type 1 diabetes arises. Doctors do not currently know why the immune system attacks pancreatic beta cells at the disease onset. To answer this question, researchers looked carefully at how Type 1 diabetes occurs in mice bred to develop the condition.
They discovered that a faulty process of clearing out normally aging cells (senescence) led to a buildup of dying cells. The accumulation of senescent cells seemed to trigger a dramatic immune system response. The scientists then administered a drug that cleared out the aging cells. Mice receiving the drug exhibited a much lower incidence of Type 1 diabetes.
Potentially, stem cell therapies could eventually correct damage to patients who have already developed Type 1 diabetes. Additionally, drug therapies may also help at-risk patients avoid developing the disease.
It is important to remember that stem cell treatments for Type 1 diabetes have not yet been approved for use in humans. However, promising laboratory work and animal studies may provide a pathway for future treatments for this crippling disease.
If you would like more information about stem cell research, or opportunities you may have to preserve your own stem cells for potential future use, please contact us at the National Dental Pulp Laboratory at (774) 843-2984, or by sending us a message here.