Stem cells from diabetic patients coaxed to become insulin-secreting cells

Signaling a potential new approach to treating diabetes, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University have produced insulin-secreting cells from stem cells derived from patients with type 1 diabetes.

Jeffrey R. Millman and his colleagues have taken stem cells from the skin of patients with type 1 diabetes and coaxed those cells to differentiate into clusters of insulin-secreting beta islet cells (seen on the computer monitor).

People with this form of diabetes can’t make their own insulin and require regular insulin injections to control their blood sugar. The new discovery suggests a personalized treatment approach to diabetes may be on the horizon — one that relies on the patients’ own stem cells to manufacture new cells that make insulin.

The researchers showed that the new cells could produce insulin when they encountered sugar. The scientists tested the cells in culture and in mice, and in both cases found that the cells secreted insulin in response to glucose.

The research is published May 10 in the journal Nature Communications.

“In theory, if we could replace the damaged cells in these individuals with new pancreatic beta cells — whose primary function is to store and release insulin to control blood glucose — patients with type 1 diabetes wouldn’t need insulin shots anymore,” said first author Jeffrey R. Millman, assistant professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine. “The cells we’ve manufactured sense the presence of glucose and secrete insulin in response. And beta cells do a much better job controlling blood sugar than diabetic patients can.”

Millman, whose laboratory is in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Lipid Research, began his research while working in the laboratory of Douglas A. Melton, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute. There, Millman had used similar techniques to make beta cells from stem cells derived from people who did not have diabetes. In these new experiments, the beta cells came from tissue taken from the skin of diabetes patients.

“There had been questions about whether we could make these cells from people with type 1 diabetes,” Millman explained. “Some scientists thought that because the tissue would be coming from diabetes patients, there might be defects to prevent us from helping the stem cells differentiate into beta cells. It turns out that’s not the case.”

Millman said more research is needed to make sure that the beta cells made from patient-derived stem cells don’t cause tumors to develop — a problem that has surfaced in some stem cell research — but there has been no evidence of tumors in the mouse studies, even up to a year after the cells were implanted.

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