Looking to love handles to treat diabetes
If a patient has Type 1 diabetes, thentheir ability to produce insulin is inhibited, usually by a loss ofbeta cells in the pancreas. Researchers have been looking at ways toreplace the lost population of cells, but the process is difficult, often requiring the patient's immune system to be suppressed in order to be effective.Now, researchers at ETH Zurich have made a big breakthrough,successfully creating functional beta cells using stem cellsextracted from the fatty tissue of a 50 year-old patient.
The researchers started by extractingendogenous stem cells from patient fatty deposits. Then, in alaboratory environment, a complex synthetic network of genes, which theresearchers refer to as genetic software, was applied to the cells,recreating the pattern of growth factors involved in the maturationprocess.
The genetic software works byincreasing and decreasing concentrations of three essential growthfactors called Ngn3, Pdx1 and MafA. Carefully controlling theconcentrations is, according to the researchers, the key to inducingthe harvested cells into becoming beta cells. For example, MafA isnot present at all at the start of the process, but about four daysin, it increases dramatically, with concentrations then remaininghigh for the rest of development.
The genetic software represents a bigstep forward, with such processes previously handled via manuallyadding the right quantities of components throughout growth. Suchpractice was both difficult to get right, and not suitable for widespread use.
The beta cells produced by the ETH Zurich researchers were found to be similar to their naturally-occurring counterparts in both appearance and function. They containdark spots – known as granules – in which the insulin is stored, andthe general function of the cells is the same, though they don'tsecrete quite as much insulin as natural cells.
Perhaps the most significant benefit ofthe new treatment is that the patient's immune system does not needto be suppressed, as would be the case is foreign tissue were beingused. Cells can be harvested from a patient, engineered into betacells, and inserted back into them, without the risk of rejectionassociated with foreign material.
Still, while these results areextremely positive, there's a lot more work to be done. So far, theengineered beta cells have only been produced in a petri dish. Nowthat the genetic software method has been proved effective in thatenvironment, clinical trials can be considered.
The findings of the research werepublished in the journal Nature Communications.
Source: ETH Zurich