Medical

Scientists close in on diabetes cure with production of insulin-producing cells

Scientists close in on diabete...
Human stem cell-derived beta cells formed islet-like clusters and made insulin when transplanted in mice, curing them of diabetes (Image: Doug Melton)
Human stem cell-derived beta cells formed islet-like clusters and made insulin when transplanted in mice, curing them of diabetes (Image: Doug Melton)
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Human stem cell-derived beta cells formed islet-like clusters and made insulin when transplanted in mice, curing them of diabetes (Image: Doug Melton)
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Human stem cell-derived beta cells formed islet-like clusters and made insulin when transplanted in mice, curing them of diabetes (Image: Doug Melton)
The researchers grew the cells in spinner flasks placed on a magnetic stirrer (Photo: Mikey Segel)
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The researchers grew the cells in spinner flasks placed on a magnetic stirrer (Photo: Mikey Segel)

Stem cell researchers at Harvard University have devised a method for creating large quantities of human insulin-producing beta cells, which could soon lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes as well as a new treatment for type 2 diabetes. The cells are currently being trialled in animals and non-human primates with hopes human trials could take place in the near future..

The researchers built a three-dimensional cell culture system using 500 ml spinner flasks containing undifferentiated human pluripotent stem cells. The flasks were placed on a magnetic stirrer and the cells were fed special proteins over a 33-day period. After further treatment and imaging, the insulin-secreting stem-cell-derived-β cells were transplanted into diabetic mice, which had a higher survival rate and lower blood glucose level than the control group under three different scenarios.

The researchers grew the cells in spinner flasks placed on a magnetic stirrer (Photo: Mikey Segel)
The researchers grew the cells in spinner flasks placed on a magnetic stirrer (Photo: Mikey Segel)

The cells produced were found to mimic the function of human islets (clusters of cells scattered throughout the pancreas), which are crucial in regulating blood sugar. Type 1 diabetics lack the beta cells that monitor blood sugar levels and release insulin to normalize it because their immune system attacks and destroys these cells. Transplanted beta cells grown in a lab may provide a long-term solution, but until now they could not be grown in sufficient quantities to treat the disease.

The other remaining piece in the diabetes cure puzzle involves pinpointing a method for protecting the transplanted cells – around 150 million of them in each patient – from immune system attack (otherwise patients would require repeated and regular or semi-regular transplantations). Lead researcher Doug Melton is collaborating with Daniel G. Anderson of the Koch Institute at MIT on an implantation device that has thus far protected beta cells implanted in mice for many months.

Anderson described the work of Melton's lab as "an incredibly important advance for diabetes" as it "opens the doors to an essentially limitless supply of tissue for diabetic patients awaiting cell therapy."

Type 1 diabetes affects an estimated three million Americans, who for the most part must currently regulate their blood sugar levels by injecting insulin multiple times a day. But without the kind of fine-tuned metabolic control that glucose-sensing, insulin-secreting beta cells can provide, they face potential complications as severe as blindness and loss of limbs. Transplanted beta cells could also help type 2 diabetics who are dependent on insulin injections.

"We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line," said Melton, who hopes to see transplantation trials in humans begin in the next few years.

A paper describing the research was published in the journal Cell.

Source: Harvard University

6 comments
Tom Lee Mullins
I think this is really good news for diabetics.
Nikki Lindstrom
Wow this sounds fabulous for most diabetics. My situation is very different though. In 1990 my doctor did 5 Cat Scans and thought I had cancer. He removed the Islet of Longhans because it looked "consistent with cancer". However, the biopsy showed no living cancer cells. Just lots scarring and damage that was due to the US government's radiation experiments on me as a three year old child. As a result of them removing 1/4 of the tip of my pancreas I have been a type 1 diabetic since 1990. The hospital says I do not produce any insulin at all. Would this procedure work for my circumstance?
Mike Giles
Now how many years will it take the FDA to approve of it?
Michael Eby
Nikki, I cannot say for sure, because I don't know your exact situation. But it sounds like if the cure described in the article works, it should be even more effective at treating people like you who need new islets of Langerhans but still have properly functioning immune systems. If I or another type 1 diabetic took this "transplant," we would still need some sort of immunosuppressant, even though these are our own cells, because diabetes is an auto-immune disorder. Type 2 diabetics might still need oral medication if the increase in insulin production isn't enough to overcome their heavy resistance. Some diabetics, such as those with MODY, neonatal diabetes, or other genetic mutations in the insulin gene or genes related to insulin production or reception, may not benefit from this treatment at all.
Leopold
Shame on the researchers for such a ludicrous hype of meagre results. Thousands of type 1 diabetes treatments successful in mice have failed in humans, and they know this. It takes on average 16 years for a new drug to pass all four phases of study and testing required for FDA approval, and after some experiments on mice, this is not even near to a cure. Even if everything went perfectly from this point onwards, it would be more than a decade before it would produce clinical results. It has already been well-established that the immunosuppressive regimen required to protect beta cells from destruction by the recipient is far more toxic than diabetes itself is, so unless they can find some method other than immunosuppression to preserve the implanted cells, their discovery is utterly and absolutely useless. The only alternative would be to implant them in capsules which form a barrier to the immune system, but experiments with this method so far have in every case demonstrated that so little oxygen has to reach the cells in the capsules if they are to be protected from the patient's immunity that they quickly become ineffective and die. So what is the use of being able to produce large numbers of cells? From start to finish, this whole result is a ridiculous piece of trash.
AlfredClark
Where do i sign up to be a guinea pig?