Signals Blog

With contributions from Michael Rudnicki.

If you’re following recent announcements in the field, then you may know about the study published this week in Diabetes that details the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) to reverse diabetes type 1 in a mouse model. The research team, led by Tim Kieffer at the University of British Columbia, used a four stage process to differentiate the pluripotent hESCs into a pancreatic progenitor cell population, that when transplanted into a diabetic mouse, eventually formed insulin-producing (beta) cells. These transplanted cells were able to produce enough insulin in the mice and regulate glucose at normal levels sufficient to allow the researchers to stop administering supplemental insulin after 4-5 months. Even when fed a high-glucose diet, the treated mice were able to control their blood glucose levels.

While not without its challenges, such as the unexplained growth of bone/cartilage tissue in the graft area in roughly 50% of the mice studied, the need to optimize the conditions for cell development prior to engraftment and refinements to reduce the potential of immune attack, the findings are (ahem) a shot in the arm in stem cell diabetes research. They improve on other related work by demonstrating success in diabetic mice (previous work had been done in non-diabetic mice) and, critically, were designed with clinical replication in mind — assuming the obstacles noted can be overcome, the method would allow a diabetic patient to be weaned from insulin therapy as the engrafted cells ramp up their functionality within the body.

A key contribution from this study is that maturation of the stemcell derived islets takes several months. The maturation process appears to replicate the normal stages of human pancreatic development. Hence it takes 4-5 months before the new islets are capable of maintaining normal glucose levels in the diabetic mouse.

Embryonic stem cells are not the only stem cell type currently being studied for its potential use as a treatment for diabetes. Islet-like stem cells derived from adult pancreatic cells are another source that is being explored, and research is also being conducted using hematopoietic stem cells. A summary of research in this area can be found on the Stem Cell Network website.

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Lisa Willemse

Lisa Willemse

Lisa is a science communicator with 15+ years' experience in the fields of regenerative medicine, child development and technology. She launched this blog (first as the Stem Cell Network Blog) in 2009, and served as co-editor until April 2015. She is currently the Senior Communications Advisor for the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine and has recently contributed to Motherboard, Science Borealis and the Genome Alberta and Canadian Blood Services blogs. Follow her on Twitter and Medium @WillemseLA.