Stem cells have reversed the equivalent of type 1 diabetes in genetically modified mice. Using skin cells as a starting point, researchers formed pancreas precursor cells that produced insulin when injected into mice.
The study provides a proof of principle that, if applied successfully to humans, could one day result in a cure for the disease.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by an insufficient amount of insulin being produced by beta-cells in the pancreas, which results in dangerously high amounts of glucose in the blood. Stem cell research into the condition has previously focused on producing healthy beta-cells, but these attempts 'have not been entirely successful', explained Dr Sheng Ding, whose team conducted the research. 'So we took a somewhat different approach'.
The researchers, who are based at the Gladstone Institutes, USA, targeted an earlier aspect of the beta-cells' development than had been attempted before. Using a 'chemical cocktail', they adapted skin cells collected from laboratory mice into endoderm cells, the cells which eventually mature into the body's major organs, including the pancreas. 'We then transformed these endoderm-like cells into cells that mimicked early pancreas-like cells', said Dr Ke Li, the paper's lead author.
These pancreas-like cells in turn matured into cells similar to beta-cells that were capable of producing insulin. Following this positive result, the new cells were transplanted into mice genetically modified to have high glucose levels - a key indicator of type 1 diabetes.
'Importantly, just one week post-transplant, the animals' glucose levels started to decrease, gradually approaching normal levels,' said Dr Li. Critically, when the cells were removed, glucose levels in the animals shot up, demonstrating a direct link between the transplantation of the pancreas-like cells and reduced blood glucose levels.
Eight weeks later, the pancreas-like cells had developed into functional beta-cells that produced insulin.
'I am particularly excited about the prospect of translating these findings to the human system', said Dr Matthias Hebrok, another of the study's authors. 'Most immediately, this technology in human cells could significantly advance our understanding of how inherent defects in beta-cells result in diabetes, bringing us notably closer to a much-needed cure'.
The findings were published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.