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Cure research project

Creating a more human-like environment to grow beta cells

Dr Rocio Sancho is a leading a team of researchers at Kings College London, thanks to a grant from JDRF. Rocio’s research team are trying to grow better insulin-producing beta cells in their lab by enhancing the gel they grow them in.
Content last reviewed and updated: 17.08.2023
Dr Rocio Sancho, type 1 diabetes beta cells researcher at Kings College London

Dr Rocio Sancho, a type 1 diabetes researcher at Kings College London.

Growing new beta cells in the lab

Beta cells are the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin and are destroyed by the immune system in type 1 diabetes. For many people, a cure for type 1 would be to have a population of functional beta cells again. One way to achieve this is by growing new beta cells in a lab from human stem cells, which can develop into most other cell types.

Why do we need to grow better beta cells?

Currently, the beta cells that researchers can grow in labs can’t function well enough to produce and release the amount of insulin needed by someone with type 1. So, researchers are trying to improve the quality of lab-grown beta cells in different ways. Rocio’s lab group is focusing on the gel that the cells are grown in to try and produce better quality beta cells.

Creating a better environment to grow beta cells

To grow beta cells, stem cells are placed in a gel that mimics the environment in which beta cells develop in the body. Until now, researchers have used a gel derived from animals, which limits their use for treating people with type 1. So, Rocio’s team has been developing their own gel to mimic the environment found in the human body, rather than that of other animals. Rocio’s team are adjusting the different proteins in their gel slightly to create the best possible environment for the beta cells.

Testing whether the gel works

Next, the researchers will select the optimal mix of proteins for their gel. Then they will use their specialised gel to grow another batch of beta cells from stem cells. They hope their gel will mimic the natural environment of the human pancreas well enough to allow these beta cells to reach full maturity. They will assess this by testing whether their lab-grown cells can behave as completely mature and effective beta cells by stabilising blood glucose levels.

How will Rocio’s research help people with type 1?

Rocio’s research will bring us closer to growing beta cells that are effective enough to cure type 1 diabetes. Her team hopes to develop a gel that enables researchers to grow beta cells that accurately mimic those found in people without type 1. They will share the recipe for their gel with other researchers so that labs across the world can use it to grow the best possible beta cells.

Is JDRF funding any other research like this?

Another researcher we are funding who is trying to grow beta cells is Dr Fiona Docherty. As well as growing new beta cells, we also fund research to protect existing beta cells. An example of this is Dr Gavin Bewick, who is developing a new drug that he hopes will protect beta cells from being destroyed by the immune system in type 1.

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