In the March issue of the journal Nature Medicine, Ammon Peck, MD, and colleagues at the University of Florida in Gainseville, reported that the use of stem cells reversed diabetes in an animal model. Their experiment was the first to demonstrate that the cells were as valuable as researchers have speculated in treating diabetes.
The researchers, together with a team from Ixion Biotechnology, isolated stem cells from the pancreases of mice. Over time, the researchers were able to grow islets from these stem cells. The islets were then transplanted back into diabetic mice which had been taken off insulin injections. When these islets were exposed to sugar in the lab they produced insulin, as normal islets do.
The authors report that after one week, blood sugar levels declined by about 50 percent in the mice. The mice remained healthy without insulin injections until they were sacrificed 55 days later for examination of the implanted islets.
Desmond Schatz, MD, one of the members of the research team, said in the March 18 issue of British Medical Journal (BMJ), “Despite being subsequently weaned off their insulin injections, these mice remained healthy.”
The blood sugar levels of the diabetic mice which did not receive the implanted cells remained high.
“The experiment shows that it is possible to grow islets from stem cells taken from the pancreas,” write Peck and colleagues.
Islet transplantation is a method that has been used to reverse diabetes. Islets are scarce, however, and stem cells have been the subject of much interest since their potential was discovered just over one year ago. Researchers said the cells could be used as tissue transplants, or even as a source to grow whole new organs. Their potential in treating diabetes is one reason why there has been a call for greater research in the area of stem cells.
Peck and colleagues are now investigating whether similar results can be achieved using cells derived from pancreatic tissue taken from human cadavers. Early results suggest that ductal tissue taken from human cadavers can be grown in culture to form functioning islet cells.
Schatz, speaking in BMJ, says this source of tissue could prove better than relying on fetal tissue and may even lead eventually to autologous pancreatic transplants.
“It might be possible to harvest pancreatic tissue from diabetic patients who still have some surviving functioning islet cells, grow them, and then transplant them back,” he said, adding that this would not only avoid some of the risks associated with the rejection of foreign tissue but could also potentially end the need for daily injections of insulin.
In a commentary that accompanied the Nature Medicine article, David Sachs, MD, and Susan Bonner-Weir, MD, of Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston wrote that the article “emphasizes the enormous potential of stem cell therapy.”