How To Heal Diabetes Using Stem Cells

(Stem Cells News image)

'Diabetes causes amputations', warns poster
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Using skin cells from people with type 1 diabetes, researchers were able to produce cells that made insulin in response to changing blood sugar levels, though not as efficiently as normal insulin-producing cells do. (…) “This is a big deal,” said Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, which provided some of the funding for the study. “Tackling the basic biology of type 1 diabetes, which is a very complex disease, is a critical step. With these cells, we can see in a dish what’s happening to the immune system, and if you don’t understand the immune response, you get nowhere with type 1 diabetes.”

“This is very preliminary data, but now we could potentially look at the interaction between immune system cells and insulin-producing cells to find the root cause or trigger, which we think might vary from patient to patient,” explained Meri Firpo, an assistant professor at the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Minnesota (…)

In the current study, researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University, obtained skin samples from two white males who had type 1 diabetes. One was diagnosed at 3 years of age, while the other was first diagnosed when he was 21.

Normal skin cells are already specialized cells. Their job is to protect the body with a covering of skin, explained Firpo. To transform these cells into embryonic-like stem cells, essentially getting them back to the beginning when they weren’t already specialized, researcher Doug Melton and his colleagues used three inserted genes to reprogram the cells, creating what’s known as an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS). In this case, the cells were then turned into insulin-producing cells (…)

She said that this study helps further at least two areas of research that JDRF is focusing on: developing a self-source for islet-cell transplants and blocking the immune response. Another area of research that JDRF is actively pursuing is the possible encapsulation of islet cells before transplantation so that they could hide from the immune system (…)


A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a way to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from ordinary adult cells taken from patients with type 1 diabetes. These stem cells then can be reprogrammed to produce all of the cell types relevant to the disease.

“What you get is the ability to watch, for the first time, type 1 diabetes develop,” says senior author Douglas Melton, a professor of natural sciences at Harvard University and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “Until you watch a disease develop, you will not understand the mechanism, and you therefore cannot devise any kind of sensible treatment or cure.”

Melton and his colleagues show that the reprogrammed iPS cells–so called for their ability to give rise to many cell types–can be spurred to differentiate into tissue resembling the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells that are destroyed by the immune system in type 1 diabetes.

Embryonic stem (ES) cells have long been the gold standard for deriving pluripotent cell lines. But ES cells can only be used to create disease models for disorders such as cystic fibrosis, where the genetic underpinnings are straightforward. Because the genetics underlying type 1diabetes are complex and poorly understood, researchers have no way to identify diabetes-specific ES cells (…)

Ultimately, Melton plans to construct a “living test tube” for probing the interplay between the beta cells and the immune system in diabetes. He hopes to use the diabetic iPS cells to generate all three relevant cell types and then to put those cells into a so-called humanized mouse that can accept human cells to see how they interact.


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