Diabetes in a Dish: Steps Toward a Cure

By reprogramming skin cells from people with type 1 diabetes, scientists have produced beta cells that secrete insulin in response to changes in glucose levels. Dr. Douglas Melton and his colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute started by using the skin cells to generate induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Once they had iPS cells, the researchers manipulated them into developing into pancreatic islet (beta) cells.

To reprogram the skin cells into iPS cells, the scientists inserted three new genes into the cells, which “induced” them to become pluripotent.  The word “pluripotent” is derived from the Latin words “pluri,” meaning “many,” and “potent,” meaning “power” or “capacity.” Pluripotent cells, like embryonic stem cells, have the capacity to differentiate into a variety of different cell types. 

This achievement, although confined to cells in a dish, is a really big deal because it moves us closer to a cure for diabetes in three ways.  First, the ability to make cells that can become any type of cell in the body, just like embryonic stem cells, adds to our arsenal in the fight against diabetes.  If scientists could use skin cells from a person with diabetes to create islet cells for that same person, the immune system would not necessarily consider the new cells as completely foreign. Consequently, the powerful immunosuppressive drugs usually given after islet transplant may not be necessary. 

Second, creating a “model” of diabetes in a dish-that is, having cells available that respond like beta cells in a person with type 1 diabetes-makes it much easier to test potential new treatments.  At present, researchers must generally use animal models, which do not fully reflect the complexity of the disease.

Third, it is thought that diabetes develops when a person who is genetically predisposed to it encounters an environmental factor that “triggers” its onset. Because these newly created iPS cells are originally from a person with diabetes, the cells should also be predisposed to the disease. This fact might allow them to be used in research to determine triggers and lead to a better understanding of the root causes of the disease.

Consequently, these findings represent a major step forward in our fight to find treatments and a cure for diabetes.  Although this line of research remains in its early stages, it is moving forward.  There is hope.

Source:  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences research article

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