JDRFResearch ProjectsWhat conditions are best for growing beta cells from stem cells?

What conditions are best for growing beta cells from stem cells?

JDRF researcher Rocio Sancho and members of her group in a lab

Scientific title: PEG-based hydrogels for iPSCs-derived regenerative therapies for diabetes
Principal investigator: Dr Rocio Sancho
Institution: King’s College London
Duration of award: 01 November 2019 – 31 October 2022


This project is looking at a new way to turn stem cells into beta cells in the lab, to better understand what conditions make this process happen efficiently.

The team will also run tests to see if the cells grown using this technique can be transplanted safely into mice, and produce insulin on demand.

The research could support researchers who need beta cells for their research, and could one day offer a way to generate beta cells for transplanting into people with type 1.

Why is JDRF funding this project?

Given that people with type 1 diabetes have lost their insulin-producing beta cells, a way to replace or restore these cells is vital to curing the condition.

However, one of the challenges to transplanting beta cells into people with type 1 is that the number of people with the condition is far greater than the number of donated pancreases.

To offer widespread transplants we would need a bigger, renewable source of beta cells – such as growing them from stem cells. Stem cells are a type of cell that can develop into any other type of cell in the body, and can be grown in large numbers.

This project will help us better understand what conditions are needed to encourage these cells to develop into beta cells in the most efficient way.

It will also assess whether the cells grown this way are safe and able to produce insulin in mice.

What will Dr Sancho’s team do?

Firstly, they will create a 3D environment to grow the cells in. This will use a gel developed by Dr Sancho’s team, made of the molecule polyethylene glycol (PEG).

The researchers will work with pancreatic ‘progenitor’ cells – these are cells that have developed a couple of steps along from stem cells, but could still mature into any cell in the pancreas, including insulin-producing beta cells.

Using the gel environment, the team will assess what conditions are best to encourage these immature pancreas cells to grow in large numbers, and then to develop into mature beta cells.

Next the team will analyse these mature cells to see how well they work and behave, compared to beta cells that grow naturally in the pancreas.

Finally, the researchers will test if the beta cells they have grown can be implanted safely into mice and, once inside, whether they reduce blood glucose levels.

How will this research help people with type 1?

Knowing what conditions might allow large numbers of beta cells to be grown from stem cells should make it easier to do research on beta cells. This would give us a much better understanding of type 1 diabetes and how it could be treated.

The research could also make it easier to replace the lost beta cells in people with type 1, by giving us a sustainable source of replacement cells.

Combined with a treatment to stop the immune system’s attack on beta cells, this could allow people with type 1 to once again produce their own insulin and reduce or avoid the need for injections.

Is JDRF funding any other research like this?

In the UK, JDRF funded Dr Francesca Spagnoli (also at King’s College London) to find out how to grow beta-like cells from skin cells.

In the US, we fund Professor Doug Melton at Harvard University and Dr Jeffrey Millman at the Washington University in St Louis, who are both looking at growing large numbers of beta cells in the lab, so that they can be used for research and new treatments.