For the first time, scientists have been able to turn human stem cells into fully grown insulin-producing cells. This important breakthrough is seen by the research team as an important step forward to developing a cure for Type 1 diabetes. The findings are reported in Nature Cell Biology.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that affects around 1.25 million people in the US. Around 40,000 cases are diagnosed each year, and that is increasing by about 3 percent every year. In Type 1 diabetes, beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed and without them, the body can't produce insulin, a hormone that regulates glucose levels in the blood. Spikes in blood sugar can lead to severe conditions like kidney failure and even death, and so patients have to take daily doses of insulin.
“Current therapeutics like insulin injections only treat the symptoms of the disease,” lead author Dr Gopika Nair, from the University of California San Franciso (UCSF), said in a statement. “Our work points to several exciting avenues to finally finding a cure.”
Researchers have long been looking at ways to repair or supplant the inactive beta cells. Using stem cells that could be transplanted into patients has always been a good bet to achieving this goal but creating them in the lab has proven difficult, as beta cells have never fully matured in a lab.
The team was finally able to overcome this stumbling block by copying how cells are organized and separate in a living pancreas. Beta cells are found in clusters called islets of Langerhans. The scientists figured this formation into islets must be an important process so followed suit, separating the partially differentiated pancreatic cells in lab dishes and organizing them into little islet clusters. Incredibly, this kickstarted the maturation of the cells. Not only did the beta cells begin producing insulin, but also the little-understood alpha and delta cells began maturing this way, another feat that has not been possible before.
“We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes,” said senior author of the study, Professor Matthias Hebrok, also at UCSF.
The team then transplanted the lab-grown islets into mice and found that within days they were functional, producing insulin in response to their blood sugar levels.
Obviously, this is just a first step in the right direction, and will need human trials before there is any real-world application but the team is already looking at ways to take this approach from the lab into hospitals. They are working on potentially altering the cells with CRISPR gene editing technology so they could be implanted directly without any immune-suppressing drugs. They are also looking into potential drugs that could restore proper islet function in patients.
“We’re finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us,” Hebrok added. “The possibilities seem endless.”