Scientists find way to make fat cells produce insulin

by Barbara Hewitt on April 13, 2016

For many people with type 2 diabetes losing weight can be a struggle but now scientists have found that cells harvested from excess body fat could be programmed to produce insulin.

The obesity crisis has also led to many more people developing type 2 diabetes but scientists in Switzerland have shown it is possible to take stem cells from the body fat of a 50 year old man and coax them into becoming insulin making beta cells by adding a new genetic code.

The researchers at ETH Zurich’s Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering in Basel found that the code triggers the same processes that would take place in the pancreas where beta cells are produced and takes just four days to complete.


Effectively the synthetic genetic programme is able to instruct stem cells taken from fatty tissue to become cells that are almost identical to natural beta cells. They believe that this discovery brings them a major step closer to a personal repair kit for diabetes sufferers.

The team, led by Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering, took the stem cells and added a highly complex synthetic network of genes, the genetic software. They designed this network to precisely recreate the key growth factors involved in this maturation process.

Fussenegger explained that it is essential to reproduce these natural processes as closely as possible in order to produce functioning beta cells. “The timing and the quantities of these growth factors are extremely important,” he said.

In Fussenegger’s opinion, it is a real breakthrough that a synthetic gene network has been successfully used to achieve genetic reprogramming that delivers beta cells. Until now, scientists have controlled such stem cell differentiation processes by adding various chemicals and proteins using pipettes.

“It’s not only really hard to add just the right quantities of these components at just the right time, it’s also inefficient and impossible to scale up,” he pointed out, adding that the new process can successfully transform three out of four adipose stem cells into beta cells.

These beta cells not only look very similar to their natural counterparts but both kinds contain dark spots known as granules, which store insulin. The artificial beta cells also function in a very similar way.

“At the present time, the quantities of insulin they secrete are not as great as with natural beta cells,” Fussenegger said but he stressed that the key point is that the researchers have for the first time succeeded in reproducing the entire natural process chain, from stem cell to differentiated beta cell.

In the future the new technique might make it possible to implant new functional beta cells in diabetes sufferers that are made from their own adipose tissue. While beta cells have been transplanted in the past, this has always required subsequent suppression of the recipient’s immune system as with any transplant of donor organs or tissue.

“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action, since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient’s own body. This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes,” Fussenegger added.

To date, the ETH researchers have merely cultured their beta cells and have yet to implant them in a person with diabetes. This is because they first wanted to test whether stem cells could be fully differentiated from start to finish using genetic programming.

Fussenegger is convinced that this new method could also be used to produce other cells, adding that most people have an overabundance of fat from which these stem cells can be harvested.

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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