Technique Allows Scientists to Create Insulin-Producing Cells

The technique deploys several strategies to reduce cancer risk. It is being evaluated in mouse models but researchers are already looking ahead to human studies.

Standard treatment for those with type 1 diabetes (T1D) is insulin injections, since the patient’s own immune systems has for some reason destroyed the beta cells that produce it in the pancreas, thus regulating blood sugar.

But what if something else could do the work of beta cells, and free patients from all those injections? Scientists presenting a technique at the 54th Annual European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology believe they have found such a method.

Researchers from the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, led by Philippe Lysy, MD (a former postdoctoral fellow at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston), had previously shown that human pancreatic duct-derived cells, or HDDCs, were a potential source of replacement cells, since they are progenitor cells.

The research team reprogrammed the HDDCs to behave like beta cells and secrete insulin, when responding to glucose. To do this, they used messenger RNA of a transcription factor MAFA, a protein that controls which genes are turned on or off in the genome. The mRNA is converted to protein before binding to cellular DNA, which allows the behavioral change of the HDDC to happen at the cellular level. This is done to avoid genetic mutations that could later cause cancer.

So far, the team has been able to transplant these converted cells in mouse models, and they await results on how well the insulin secretion is working.

A significant benefit of this technique is its use of adult cells instead of stem cells, which additionally avoid cancer risk.

While group awaits results from the mouse model, it is also producing batches of cells for future studies with human patients, Lysy said in a statement.