Scientists can grow new insulin-producing beta cells in the lab, but they don’t work as well as ‘real’ beta cells. Dr Ildem Akerman will test out a new way to improve how we make lab-grown beta cells, she hopes this will make them work better and be more responsive to changes in blood sugar. In the future, we hope lab-grown beta cells could be transplanted into people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes to replace the cells that have been destroyed or stopped working, and this project could help us take a huge step towards that goal.
Background to research
In type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed by the immune system. In type 2 diabetes, the same cells stop working properly. If we could replace the beta cells that are destroyed or not working, we could help people make the right amount of their own insulin again and take a massive step towards a cure.
Scientists are already making impressive progress towards this goal. They’re developing ways to make an unlimited supply of beta cells in the lab using stem cells. Stem cells can be coaxed into becoming any type of cell in the body. In the future, we hope lab-grown beta cells could be transplanted into people with diabetes.
But there are still some hurdles to overcome before we get there. At the moment, newly made beta cells don’t work very well and only start to release insulin when exposed to very high blood sugar levels. Dr Akerman wants to work out how we can make better, more responsive beta cells.
Beta cells grown in the lab are missing proteins that control how they operate. Dr Akerman will look for which proteins within ‘real’ beta cells are most important to control how the cells sense blood sugar levels and how they release insulin. She’ll do this using a method called RNA-sequencing.
She will then aim to ‘put back’ these proteins into the lab-grown beta cells. Finally, using state of the art cell imaging technology, she will examine how well the cells work. And whether – now that they have the right building blocks – they can better respond to increases into blood sugar levels by releasing more insulin.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
Beta cells replacement therapy has the potential to transform how we treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and to form part of a cure. If successful, this research could take us a step closer to this treatment becoming a reality.
By helping people make enough of their own insulin again, it could spell the end of insulin injections and pumps, reduce the need for constant blood sugar monitoring and help prevent the development of diabetes complications.