For the first time, researchers have transformed human stem cells into mature insulin-producing cells. The breakthrough could lead us a step closer to developing a cure for Type 1 diabetes.
Insulin is responsible for regulating glucose and sugar levels in the blood. But insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed in patients with T1 diabetes, causing a range of immunity complications and even serious organ damage, such as kidney failure or stroke. It’s no surprise that diabetes researchers have been trying to replicate these life-changing cells in the lab.
In the past, scientists had not managed to program stem cells into fully mature beta cells, making them unable to respond properly to blood glucose and secrete insulin. However, scientists at the University of California San Francisco found a solution. They cultured pluripotent stem cells in a dish, using a process never tried before.
A key principle in biology is that form follows function, so we reasoned that the formation of islets might be an important process for beta cells to mature properly
- Gopika Nair, PhD, UCSF Diabetes Center
By artificially separating pancreatic stem cells and reforming them into islet-like clusters, the cells’ development leapt forward. They responded to blood sugar and produced insulin within days - like mature insulin-producing cells - in a way that had never been seen in a lab.
Now researchers at UCSF are working on regenerative therapies for Type 1 diabetes using these stem cells, which will hopefully eliminate the need for pancreas transplants. Only 1000 are available per year to the 1.5 million people in the US living with T1 diabetes. Nair says:
Current therapeutics like insulin injections only treat the symptoms of the disease…Our work points to several exciting avenues to finally finding a cure.
We’re finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us…The possibilities seem endless.