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Replacing beta cells — SMF Grand Challenge

To cure type 1 diabetes, we need to find a way to give people new beta cells so the pancreas works as it should to perfectly control blood sugar levels

In type 1 diabetes the cells in the pancreas that make insulin have been destroyed by the immune system. This means people can’t produce enough insulin and they must do the job of their pancreas with relentless blood sugar checks and insulin dosing to keep their blood sugars in range.  

Islet transplants, where cells from a donor pancreas are transplanted into people with type 1 diabetes, already exist and are used to help people who have regular and severe hypos. They can be life-changing and life-saving for this group of people, but in its current form the treatment is far from perfect. Transplanted cells can die off quickly and there’s a limited supply of donor cells available, which restricts how many people could benefit.  

To get round some of these problems, scientists are working on making new beta cells in the lab using stem cells. Stem cells are unique. Most cells in our body are designed to do one particular job, but stem cells can be coaxed into becoming different types of cells, including beta cells. Early trials testing transplants of stem cells turned beta cells are underway. But the lab-grown beta cells don’t do as good a job as real beta cells at managing blood sugar levels.  

If the best beta cells are your own beta cells, is there a way to encourage the body the grow new ones? Scientists have been exploring this possibility since our researchers discovered that most people with type 1 diabetes still have a tiny amount of surviving beta cells, even after living with the condition for decades.

Perhaps beta cells are hiding or sleeping, and if so it might be possible to rescue them and encourage new beta cells to grow without a transplant. Research in this area is at a very early stage and we have more questions than answers.  

The challenge 

The SMF Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge will call on the diabetes research community to work together to tackle the issues that are holding back progress and bring about game-changing advances in new treatments that replace or rescue beta cells.  

We want to support scientists to innovate techniques that help donor cells to survive and thrive and radically improves how beta cells are grown in the lab.  

And we want to back fresh thinking that helps to fast track progress towards rescuing the body’s own beta cells. 

“By helping people make enough of their own insulin again, beta cell treatments would spell the end of insulin injections or pumps and constant blood sugar checks, along with helping to prevent devastating diabetes complications. 

“The investment from the Steve Morgan Foundation will be a catalyst that enables scientists to tackle this challenge in renewed and inventive ways to speed up progress and provide fresh hope of a cure for everyone living with type 1 diabetes.”  

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK 

 

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