In a world-first, a group of researchers from UC San Francisco have managed to turn human stem cells into mature insulin-producing cells. This is a major breakthrough which could lead to a cure for Type 1 diabetes.
Researchers have been excited about the idea of using stem cells to create mature insulin-producing cells for many years. They have always believed that these mature cells may be transplanted directly into the body of a person with Type 1 diabetes, enabling them to produce their own insulin.
The major challenge faced by researchers was producing cells that worked like real insulin-producing cells within a laboratory dish. This latest research project indicates that this challenge may be finally achieved.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that results in the insulin-producing beta cells found in the pancreas being destroyed. Without these cells, there is insufficient insulin within the body to regulate blood glucose levels. Unfortunately, having too much glucose in the blood can cause damage to various organs and is life-threatening.
The condition is usually managed through a combination of diet and regular insulin injections. Even then, most people with Type 1 diabetes suffer from serious health consequences like heart disease, stroke, and diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage).
Some patients with Type 1 diabetes can receive a pancreas transplant. However, there are not enough organs available for the millions of Type 1 diabetes sufferers. A pancreases transplant can also be very dangerous.
Paper co-author Dr. Matthias Hebrok described how difficult it was to create functioning insulin-producing cells, saying: “The cells we and others were producing were getting stuck at an immature stage where they weren’t able to respond adequately to blood glucose and secrete insulin properly. It has been a major bottleneck for the field.”
The research team realised that they were overlooking an important part of the process — how cells separate from the pancreas to form the so-called islets of Langerhans (antigen-presenting immune cells). When the scientists managed to replicate this process, they created functioning insulin-producing cells. The findings may eventually lead to a cure for diabetes and various other conditions.