Jeffrey R. Millman, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University and Principal Investigator on the study, said: “A common problem when you are trying to transform a human stem cell into an insulin-producing beta cell — or a neuron or a heart cell —is that you also produce other cells that you don’t want.
“In the case of beta cells, we might get other types of pancreas cells or liver cells.”
Researchers found that off-target pancreas and liver cells did not hurt anything when implanted, but they did not fight diabetes either.
Professor Millman said: “The more off-target cells you get, the less therapeutically relevant cells you have.
“You need about a billion beta cells to cure a person of diabetes. But if a quarter of the cells you make are actually liver cells or other pancreas cells, instead of needing a billion cells, you’ll need 1.25 billion cells. It makes curing the condition 25% more difficult.”
Using the new technique, Professor Millman and his team found far fewer off-target cells were produced while the beta cells that were made had improved function.
The technique targets the cells’ internal scaffolding, called the cytoskeleton. The cytoskeleton is what gives a cell its shape and allows the cell to interact with its surrounding environment, converting physical cues into biochemical signals.
Professor Millman added: “It’s a completely different approach, fundamentally different in the way we go about it.
“Previously, we would identify various proteins and factors and sprinkle them on the cells to see what would happen. As we have better understood the signals, we’ve been able to make that process less random.”
By understanding that process has enabled the team to produce more beta cells.
The researchers found that the new technique worked efficiently across stem cells from multiple different sources, providing more options to develop this method in the study of type 1 diabetes.
The researchers will need to test the cells over longer periods of time to have any hope of producing beta cells that can help the millions of people who currently require insulin injections to control type 1 diabetes.
Professor Millman explained that there still is much to do before this strategy can be used to treat people with diabetes, but that the research was continuing.
Read the report in Nature Biotechnology
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