Diabetics' Own Stem Cells As Weapons

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University have successfully manufactured insulin-secreting cells that resemble normal beta cells, and they did it using stem cells of patients with type 1 diabetes—a disorder which makes these individuals unable to produce their own insulin. Since they cannot produce insulin, they require regular insulin shots in order to control their blood sugar.

Notably, the insulin-secreting cell cultures were also tested in mice.

"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," Jeffrey R. Millman, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine says. "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."

Similar experiments have been done before using stem cells from people without diabetes, but this time they decided to use beta cells from the skin tissue of diabetes patients to see if they could obtain similar results.

"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."

Stem cell-derived beta cells (blue) produce insulin (green) when they encounter glucose. Millman Laboratory

Outpatient Surgical Procedure

While the research shows promise, Millman says more tests are needed in order to make sure that tumors will not form as a result of using stem cells from diabetic patients in humans, even though the trials with the mice did not end in tumors up to a year after the cell implants.

He says the procedure should be refined and ready for human trials in three to five years. The cells would then be implanted under the skin, where it would enter the patient’s bloodstream, making it a minimally invasive surgical procedure.

"What we're envisioning is an outpatient procedure in which some sort of device filled with the cells would be placed just beneath the skin," he said.

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