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Cure research project

Growing beta cells in the lab from stem cells

We have awarded Dr Fiona Docherty from the University of Birmingham funding to grow insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells, which can divide and grow forever and can make any cell type in the body.
Content last reviewed and updated: 18.08.2023
Dr Fiona Docherty, a type 1 diabetes cure researcher, working on beta cells research, in her lab.

Dr. Fiona Docherty from the University of Birmingham

Fiona’s research project to grow better beta cells

In this project, Fiona will investigate if turning on a specific gene called GLIS3, which has been shown to increase insulin levels, produces better beta cells in the lab. Ultimately, improving the quality of lab-grown beta cells will reduce the number of cells needed for transplants and maximise their ability to precisely control blood sugar levels in patients.

Why is JDRF funding this project?

Transplanting islets (clusters of cells containing the beta cells) has had positive outcomes in the clinic but is severely limited by a lack of organ donors. An alternative to transplanting donor islets is to transplant beta cells grown from stem cells. Already, clinical trials are underway in the US where several people with type 1 have received transplants of lab-grown beta cells.

We need to make more effective lab-grown beta cells

While these trials are exciting and will help us understand how well the cells survive in humans, we need to make them closer to natural adult human beta cells. So far, the beta cells researchers can make in the lab make a hundred times less insulin than those from donor islets. We are funding Fiona’s project to improve the quality of beta cells in the hope they can be used in future clinical trials.

What will Fiona do in this research project?

Fiona has previously found that the GLIS3 gene regulates the function of the insulin gene (which makes insulin when turned on) in human beta cells. GLIS3 also controls several other genes that are needed for beta cells to carry out their function of producing and releasing insulin. However, she has found that there isn’t much GLIS3 in the beta cells her team has been making in the lab.

So, Fiona will increase the level of GLIS3 at different stages in the development of beta cells from stem cells. She thinks this will produce beta cells that contain significantly higher levels of insulin.

How will Fiona change the beta cells’ genes?

To switch the GLIS3 gene on, Fiona will add a chemical called tamoxifen to the mixture that her beta cells are growing in. She will compare how functional her beta cells are compared to the standard beta cells that her lab grows. Their functionality will be assessed by the amount of C-peptide in the population of beta cells, indicating how much insulin they contain. Fiona will also measure how much insulin the beta cells release when they are exposed to glucose.

Finding out whether her idea works

As this is only a small year-long project, Fiona aims to determine the optimum levels of GLIS3 at key stages in beta cell development to produce better functioning beta cells. After she has established this – and if her project proves successful – she will apply for a larger grant to develop more of these improved beta cells.

How will this project help people with type 1?

Transplantation of donor islets has shown us that cell therapy could be an effective treatment – and possibly even a cure – for type 1. Patients who receive islets from donors experience around 35 months without needing to give themselves insulin, but then the transplant starts to lose its effectiveness. Generating an abundant and high functioning source of beta cells could lead to transplants of lab-grown beta cells becoming a routine treatment for people with type 1. For this potential treatment to become a reality, studies like Fiona’s are vital to create cells of the highest quality in terms of function, purity and of course, safety.

Is JDRF funding any other research like this?

We are funding another research team who are trying to improve the quality of lab-grown beta cells. Based at Kings College London, this team is led by Dr Rocio Sancho and is tweaking the mixture in which the beta cells are grown. The researchers are adding different proteins to a water-based gel to more accurately mimic the conditions that beta cells grow in in humans.

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