Better beta cells grown in the lab

Posted on 23 January 2019

Research flasks and beakers on white background

A US team have found a way to make lab-grown beta cells behave more like real beta cells.

The better beta cells were able to produce more insulin and respond to changing glucose levels more appropriately than before.

These results mean that new treatments based on beta cells are one step closer to becoming a reality for people living with type 1 diabetes.

The work was partly funded by JDRF.

Why did they do this research?

Researchers around the world are working to develop treatments to replace the lost beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes.

In 2014, a group in Harvard led by Professor Doug Melton announced they had discovered how to grow millions of beta-like cells from stem cells.

Dr Jeffrey Millman, who was part of the Harvard team at the time, has since set up his own lab group to continue research in this area. He and his new team have continued improving and refining the transformation technique, to produce better-quality beta cells that behave more like regular beta cells.

What did they do?

The team tweaked the original method and devised a new, six-stage transformation strategy to turn stem cells into beta cells in the lab.

The researchers then transplanted the new beta cells into mice with diabetes, to test how well the cells were able to respond to changing glucose levels over 10 weeks.

What did they find?

Overall, the new beta cells behaved better than the ones grown with the original 2014 method, although still not as well as regular human beta cells.

When stimulated with glucose, the new beta cells were able to produce much more insulin than beta cells grown using the original 2014 method.

The new beta cells also responded more sensitively to changing glucose levels.

In addition, the mice who received the new beta cells were able to produce insulin, and manage glucose levels to a similar extent as mice without diabetes.

What does this mean for type 1?

Being able to produce lots of good-quality beta cells is key to delivering new cell-based treatments to people with type 1 diabetes.

These results therefore are encouraging progress in the search for better treatments and even a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Dr Jeffrey Millman explained the importance of their results:

“We’ve been able to overcome a major weakness in the way these cells previously had been developed. The new insulin-producing cells react more quickly and appropriately when they encounter glucose.

“The cells behave much more like beta cells in people who don’t have diabetes.”

What’s next?

In the future, Dr Millman hopes that his beta cells will be used to develop advanced treatments for type 1 diabetes. This could include encapsulating them in a protective gel for implanting into the body, or editing the beta cells’ genes so that they could ‘hide’ from the immune system.

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