Regenerative treatments could one day cure people with type 1 by allowing them to make insulin on demand again, by triggering the growth of new insulin-producing beta cells.
Regenerative medicine is quite a young field of research, so in the last 20 years we have gone from a standing start to the first human clinical trials of stem cell treatments. Human beta cells have proven difficult to study and grow in the laboratory, which has hampered progress in developing new treatments for people with type 1.
JDRF is funding research programmes looking to create beta cells from a number of different types of cells.
2014 saw a major breakthrough in type 1 diabetes stem cell research: two JDRF-funded research groups independently announced they had developed techniques for growing large volumes of well-developed human beta cells from stem cells in the laboratory. These breakthroughs mean we can study beta cells – how to grow them, how to keep them healthy and how to keep them safe from the immune system – much more easily.
We have provided significant support to Professors Doug Melton and Timothy Keiffer who were behind 2014’s stem cell breakthroughs. We are continuing to provide funding to both these ground-breaking groups to help them build on their research, as well as funding other groups who may be able to outstrip their achievements.
Laboratory studies have shown that another type of cell that grows alongside beta cells in the islets of Langerhans, called alpha cells, could be ‘reprogrammed’ to make insulin. Alpha cells make glucagon and are undamaged by the immune system in type 1 diabetes, so there are plenty of them in people with type 1 diabetes. As the cells are very similar in how they develop, and in the function they perform in the body, ‘switching’ these cells into beta cells may be more straightforward than using another cell type.
Many people with type 1, even those who’ve lived with it for many years, have some beta cells remaining. These cells make a perfect target for attempting to regenerate the cells that were lost, so a key area of research here is finding the natural triggers that would normally govern beta cell growth. Some researchers are looking a little further afield for a possible source of new beta cells. For example, Dr Francesca Spagnoli is working on turning skin cells into beta cells.
Regeneration research is still a long way off being able to provide a cure for type 1 as there is still a great deal to learn. But the promise of the research is hugely important – and will also lead to important benefits along the way. Just being able to grow beta cells efficiently in the laboratory speeds research progress. In fact, this is one of the first uses for the beta cells grown from stem cells by Professor Doug Melton and his team at Harvard University, which hit the headlines in 2014. The team will now be working with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to use the cells to ‘screen’ a huge library of potential drugs to see which could have potential in protecting and promoting growth of beta cells in the body.
Beta cells grown in the laboratory are already providing a source of cells for encapsulation approaches to curing type 1 diabetes. Read more about encapsulation research here.