A global diabetes epidemic is on the horizon, and researchers around the world are working against the clock to find a cure. However, one major obstacle that diabetes researchers have struggled to overcome is being able to produce enough insulin in patients to support important life processes. This goal may now finally be possible due to recent developments in insulin-producing pancreatic beta-cells. A Harvard lab led by Professor Douglas Melton has succeeded in developing a protocol to produce millions of functional beta cells that, when transplanted, cured diabetes in mice. These recent developments could potentially become a game-changer in diabetes research.
Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin, as is the case in type 1 diabetes, or when the body does not use insulin properly, such as in type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 9.3 percent of the United States population currently suffers from diabetes. This number is troubling because diabetes is linked to cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of early death amongst people with diabetes. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have a heart disease or suffer a stroke.
Previous research has focused on using pluripotent undifferentiated human stem cells to generate cells with characteristics of insulin-producing beta cells. However, many of these cells lacked characteristics of actual beta cells and failed to secrete glucose when cultured outside of the body.
The process of beta cell production was refined in the Harvard team’s study, which focused on large-scale production of functional human beta cells from human pluripotent stem cells. The researchers developed a scalable differentiation protocol, involving a unique combination of different sequential culture steps, in which hundreds of millions of glucose-responsive beta cells could be generated from human pluripotent stem cells. The resulting stem cells, known as stem-cell derived beta cells, displayed the characteristics of actual beta cells, such as expressing markers found in mature beta cells and secreting almost as much as insulin as adult beta cells. When tested in diabetic mice, these stem-cell derived beta cells started to secrete human insulin about four months after transplantation and cured the mice of diabetes.
This study is promising because it opens doors to different types of drug therapy that involve transplantation of stem-cell derived beta cells that can sustain glucose production in the body. Diabetic patients could potentially be cured by transplantation of functional stem-cell derived beta cells. Such a procedure would be especially relevant to patients suffering from type 1 diabetes because it offers a solution to not being able to produce enough insulin, the major issue faced by these patients. Overall, the results of this study represent not only a huge step forward in cell replacement therapy in diabetes, but also a step towards a cure for diabetes.