Insulin secreting cells from people with type 1 diabetes raises new treatment option

by Barbara Hewitt on May 13, 2016

Scientists have produced insulin secreting cells from stem cells from people with type 1 diabetes which could lead to a pioneering treatment for people with the condition.

The discovery by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University suggests a personalised treatment approach to diabetes may be on the horizon.

It would be a treatment that relies on the patients own stem cells to manufacture new cells that make insulin. In theory the damaged cells that lead to type 1 diabetes would be replaced with healthy new ones.


The researchers showed that the new cells could produce insulin when they encountered sugar. The scientists tested the cells in culture and in mice, and in both cases found that the cells secreted insulin in response to glucose.

“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,” said first author Jeffrey Millman, an assistant professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine.

“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,” he added.

He explained that there had been questions about whether they could make these cells from people with type 1 diabetes. “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,” he pointed out.

Millman said more research is needed to make sure that the beta cells made from patient derived stem cells don’t cause tumours to develop, a problem that has surfaced in some stem cell research, but there has been no evidence of tumours in the mouse studies, even up to a year after the cells were implanted.

He believes that stem cell derived beta cells could be ready for human research in three to five years. At that time, Millman expects the cells would be implanted under the skin of diabetes patients in a minimally invasive surgical procedure that would allow the beta cells access to a patient’s blood supply.

“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.

The idea of replacing beta cells isn’t new. More than two decades ago, Washington University researchers began transplanting such cells into patients with type 1 diabetes. Still today, patients in several clinical trials have been given beta cell transplants with some success.

However, those cells come from pancreas tissue provided by organ donors. As with all types of organ donation, the need for islet beta cells for people with type 1 diabetes greatly exceeds their availability.

Millman said that the new technique also could be used in other ways. Since these experiments have proven it’s possible to make beta cells from the tissue of patients with type 1 diabetes, it’s likely the technique also would work in patients with other forms of the disease including type 2 diabetes, neonatal diabetes and Wolfram syndrome. Then it would be possible to test the effects of diabetes drugs on the beta cells of patients with various forms of the disease.

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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