Scientists create fully functioning pancreatic cells for the first time

by Barbara Hewitt on April 14, 2016

Scientists in the United States have created fully functioning pancreatic cells that produce insulin in the laboratory from human stem cells for the first time, it has been announced.

It is claimed that the move could help to transform future treatments for people with type 1 diabetes and is being hailed as a breakthrough as in the future people could receive beta cell transplants from their own body.

For more than a decade, scientists across the globe have strived to replace failing pancreatic beta cells. Although cells made in a dish were able to produce insulin, they were sluggish or simply unable to respond to glucose.


The researchers, led by a team from the Salk Institute in San Diego, identified a ‘switch’ that prompts foetal beta cells to mature and produce insulin.

“We found the missing energy switch needed to produce robust and functional human beta cells, potentially turning this discovery into a viable treatment for human diabetes,” said Ronald Evans, co-senior author and director of the Gene Expression Laboratory at Salk.

“This work transitions us to a new era in creating functional beta cells at will. In a dish, with this one switch, it’s possible to produce a functional human beta cell that’s responding almost as well as the natural thing,” added Evans.

The advance will result in a better controlled insulin response than currently available treatments, according to Michael Downes, co-senior author and a Salk senior staff scientist.

“Previously there was nothing known about the maturation process in beta cells. We peeked into that black box and now we know what’s going on,” he explained and added that the team’s technique is an easy, fast and inexpensive way to make transplantable human pancreatic beta cells in a dish that genetically match patients.

Initially the researchers were trying to find the gene expression differences between immature beta cells and their adult equivalents. They found that the adult cells had much higher levels of a particular genetic switch, a nuclear receptor protein. This protein is important in energy intensive cells throughout the body, such as muscle and brain cells, as it enables rapid energy production.

“We don’t come from a diabetes background, we come from a much more metabolic regulation background. So we looked at it as not being a problem of cell differentiation but a problem of regulation and to get the regulation working right you just needed to turn the switch on,” Liddle pointed out.

When they induced the immature stem cell-derived beta cells to produce more protein the cells began to produce insulin in response to glucose stimulation and continued to do so indefinitely.

When the researchers transplanted the newly activated human beta cells into mice with type 1 diabetes, they found the cells rapidly regulated the animals’ blood sugar level to non-diabetic levels. They now aim to work on being able to transplant individually tailored beta cells into diabetics without the need for immunosuppressive treatment.

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.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: