Insulin producing cell research reaches an important stage in fight against type 1 diabetes

by Barbara Hewitt on September 18, 2014

A new procedure that can turn stem cells into insulin producing cells is being hailed as an important step in the fight against type 1 diabetes.

A study from the University of British Columbia in Canada, in collaboration with BetaLogics Venture, a division of Janssen Research & Development, reveals that stem cells can be turned into reliable insulin producing cells in about six weeks, far quicker than the four months it took using previous methods.


Stem cells can be turned into reliable insulin producing cells in about six weeks; it used to take four months

‘We are a step closer to having an unlimited supply of insulin producing cells to treat patients with type 1 diabetes,’ said Timothy Kieffer, who led the research and is a professor in UBC’s Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences and the Department of Surgery.

The protocol transforms stem cells into insulin secreting pancreatic cells via a cell culture method. The conversion is completed after the cells are transplanted into a host.

‘We have not yet made fully functional cells in a dish, but we are very close. The cells we make in the laboratory produce insulin, but are still immature and need the transplant host to complete the transformation into fully functioning cells,’ he explained.

An important next step for UBC researchers and their industry collaborators is to determine how to prevent the insulin producing cells’ from being rejected by the body.

The research was supported by the JDRF, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Stem Cell Network of Canada, Stem Cell Technologies of Vancouver, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

Experimental human donor transplants of healthy pancreatic islets, which contain the beta cells, have had success. But treatment is limited by donor availability and the need for strong immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells.

Also in development is an artificial pancreas device that can be implanted into a diabetes patient. The secretion of insulin would be controlled and monitored by a cell phone.

Kieffer believes that those who suffer from diabetes can take hope from the research. ‘Many patients rely on daily insulin injections to survive, but a few have received an experimental therapy consisting of transplant of cadaveric islets, clusters of the insulin producing beta-cells collected from organ donors,’ he explained.

‘The procedure involves infusion of a few teaspoons of cells into the portal vein and frees patients from the burdens of glucose monitoring and insulin injections. With a proven effective clinical path, an unlimited source of insulin producing cells is needed to make this approach widely available,’ he said.

‘Over the past decade, there have been considerable advances towards harnessing stem cells to tackle diabetes and iPS cells have now been made from patients with diabetes and these have been converted to beta-cells, an important first step towards modelling diabetes to understand the root cause. With momentum gaining, I wouldn’t be surprised if stem cells can deliver us from diabetes within the next decade,’ he added.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

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