Scientists at the University of California at San Diego recently announced that they have successfully grown beta cells that can produce insulin. The finding may eliminate one of the biggest obstacles in making islet transplantation a viable treatment for diabetes.
The study, which was unveiled by Dr. Fred Levine at this year’s American Diabetes Association conference in San Antonio, Texas, found that the engineered beta cells secreted insulin in diabetic mice as well as in a test tube. More studies are expected to determine if enough cells can be produced to be effective in a larger animal, and the researchers are hopeful that human studies may eventually be possible.
The UCSD study may be instrumental in keeping islet transplantation at the front of the race for a diabetes cure. If further studies find that beta cells can be produced on a mass scale, the need for donor pancreases may be completely eliminated, making transplantation a far less elaborate and costly procedure.
Nonetheless, some doubts remain. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, which funded part of the study, is enthusiastic about the UCSD study’s potential, but remains cautious about some of the steps necessary to engineer the beta cells. The introduction of a tumor-promoting gene to stimulate cell growth is of particular concern. Furthermore, it remains to be proven that transplanting beta cells, which make up 80 percent of islets, is as effective as transplanting whole islets, although most researchers concur they should be equally effective.