Scientists Coax Human Embryonic Stem Cells Into Making Insulin

Source: National Public Radio
Right now, many people with diabetes have to regularly check the level of sugar in their blood and inject themselves with insulin to keep the sugar in their blood in check…
People with poorly controlled diabetes can suffer complications such as blindness, amputations and heart attacks…It’s an imperfect treatment, a “kind of a life-support for diabetics,” says Doug Melton, a stem-cell researcher at Harvard Medical School. “It doesn’t cure the disease and leads to devastating complications of the disease.”
Researchers have had some success transplanting insulin-producing cells from cadavers into people with diabetes. But it’s been difficult to procure enough cells to treat large numbers of patients. So scientists have been trying to figure out how they could get more cells more easily. And now Melton and his colleagues are reporting in a paper being published in this week’s issue of the journal Cell that they think they have finally found that better way.
“We are reporting the ability to make hundreds of millions of cells — the cell that can read the amount of sugar in the blood which appears following a meal and then squirts out or secretes just the right amount of insulin,” Melton says.
The advance came after laboring for more than 15 years to find a way to turn human embryonic stem cells into so-called beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Dozens of scientists spent years analyzing the cells’ genes and experimenting with different combinations of chemical signals to try to coax the cells into becoming beta cells. Finally, they came up with a recipe that appears to work.
…When Melton and his colleagues transplanted the cells into mice with diabetes, the results were clear — and fast. “We can cure their diabetes right away — in less than 10 days,” he says. “This finding provides a kind of unprecedented cell source that could be used for cell transplantation therapy in diabetes.”

Other scientists hailed the research as a major step forward… But…some…have moral objections to anything that involves human embryonic stem cell research because it destroys human embryos.

…Melton and others caution that there’s still a lot more work to do. For one thing, they need to come up with a way to hide the cells from the immune system, especially for people with Type 1 diabetes. But they’re working on that and have developed a shell to protect the cells. “We’re thinking about it as sort of like a teabag, where the tea stays inside, and the water goes in and then the dissolved tea comes out,” Melton says. “And so, if you think about a teabag analogy, we would put our cells inside this teabag.”
Melton thinks he can also make insulin cells using another kind of stem cell known as an induced pluripotent stem cell, which doesn’t destroy any embryos. He’s trying to figure out if it works as well, and hopes to start testing his insulin cells in people with diabetes within three years.

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