Pancreatic beta cells help control the amount of sugar in our blood. They achieve this by sensing blood sugar and producing insulin to reduce blood sugar when it gets too high. In some types of diabetes, beta cells produce little to no insulin leading to sustained high blood sugar which can damage blood vessels, organs and nerves.
A novel treatment approach for diabetes that is in development involves the production of beta cells in the lab. These cells would then be transplanted into patients to help regulate their blood sugar and control their diabetes.
Human stem cells, which are capable of producing different types of cells in the body, are the starting point for producing these beta cells. Researchers can coax the stem cells into generating beta cells by turning on or off the activity of a select set of genes and proteins.
In their most recent publication, Dr. Cristina Nostro, a scientist at UHN’s McEwen Stem Cell Institute and the Soham & Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre, and her colleague, Dr. Tae-Hee Kim at SickKids, discovered that supportive tissues surrounding the developing pancreas and gut produce organ-specific signals required for proper development. The researchers then showed that these signals can be modulated in the petri dish to improve the stem cells’ ability to produce pancreatic beta cells.
“We have identified a new strategy for promoting beta cell production,” says Dr. Nostro, who holds The Harry Rosen Chair in Diabetes Regenerative Medicine Research. “This insight could help beta cell transplantation move one step closer to the clinic. In addition, our findings emphasize the importance of environmental cues in the development of different types of cells from stem cells.”