Our Research Communications Manager, Conor McKeever, explains why JDRF is funding Dr Rocio Sancho, a Group Leader at King’s College London, to find new ways to grow insulin-producing beta cells in the lab.
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system mistakenly mounts an attack on the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. This means that if we want to cure type 1, we need to replace the cells that are destroyed.
One of the biggest challenges to this is finding a renewable source of beta cells. Currently, only a very small number of people can receive a beta cell transplant, due to a shortage of organ donors and the fact that the recipient must take anti-rejection drugs for life, which bring their own complications.
But if we could find a way to grow new beta cells that were tailored to the recipient, then we could avoid both of these issues.
Home-grown beta cells
That’s where Dr Rocio Sancho comes in. She is a Group Leader at the King’s College London Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine.
As an expert in regenerative medicine, Dr Sancho has been working on a way to grow new beta cells from stem cells in the lab.
Stem cells are a type of cell that can develop into any other type of cell in the body. They can be grown in large numbers, and can even be made from a sample of a person’s skin.
That means that, if Dr Sancho’s research is successful, we could one day take a small sample of skin from a person with type 1 diabetes, and grow them some replacement beta cells in the lab.
Although this might sound like science fiction, previous research has shown that it is possible to turn skin cells into heart and muscle cells. And Dr Sancho’s team has already successfully grown stem cells into a type of ‘immature’ pancreatic cell.
So the next step is to test different ways to enable these pancreatic cells to become fully functioning, insulin-producing, cells.
That’s the research we are funding Dr Sancho to do.
Her project will help us better understand what conditions are needed to encourage these cells to develop into beta cells in the most efficient way. She will also look at whether the cells grown this way are safe and able to produce insulin once grown.
These are key questions we need to answer if we want to one day use stem cells to replace the lost beta cells in people with type 1 diabetes.
For now, we’re excited to see how her research progresses – and, as ever, we will keep you updated through our News pages as she and our other researchers bring us closer to a world without type 1 diabetes.
You can learn more about Dr Rocio Sancho’s project here.