The key to the treatment of diabetes by stem cells is found

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen, together with colleagues from the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk (Denmark), presented a new improved method for producing beta cells from human embryonic stem cells. The results of the work were published on September 14, 2017 in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

Beta cells produce a hormone insulin that lowers blood glucose levels. However, with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys the beta cells. Therefore, people suffering from this disease need insulin injections.

Scientists have long been trying to solve this problem, including artificially growing the necessary cells for transplantation to diabetics. A group of researchers from Denmark proposed a new, improved method based on human embryonic stem cells (SC).

“At the moment, we can make stem cells develop into something that resembles proper beta cells. Our research shows that the current method produces cells that resemble alpha cells a little too much. However, the research has given us a better understanding of the steps stem cells go through when they develop into beta cells. In fact, we also show that the cells can develop along different paths, and still end up making the same type of beta cells,” – says Anne Grapin-Botton, professor at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology.

The researchers used human pluripotent stem cells, which are able to differentiate into any type of body cells. Using known methods, scientists analyzed about 600 different SCs in the process of their transformation into beta cells, the identity of which was also studied at the molecular level.

In the course of the experiments, the researchers discovered previously unknown aspects of cell development and the role of certain genes in this development. The main genes that participate in the final formation of beta cells – NXK6.1 and MNX1 – are found in the end.

“This study takes an in-depth look at the molecular mechanisms on the cell level. We are not looking at what the average cells do, as other scientists have previously done – we are looking at all the individual cells. We are doing so in the hope that we can prevent cells from developing in the ‘wrong direction’. This work sheds light on the paths which the cells take in their development and how we human beings develop in the womb,” – says Grapin-Botton.

Alpha cells have the differing function of beta cells Alpha cells are located in the pancreas along with beta cells and secrete a hormone called glucagon, which lowers insulin levels by increasing blood glucose levels. Thus, the differentiation of SCs into cells that resemble alpha-like properties is not an optimal treatment for diabetics.

“The cells definitely start the process of becoming either alpha or beta cells, but they don’t complete it. Here, we need to carry on researching to learn even more about how we can optimise the last step in the development of beta cells,” – explains Grapin-Botton.