Transplants of insulin-producing beta cells from donors into people with type 1 diabetes, called ‘islet transplants’, have been shown to temporarily remove the need for insulin injections in many cases. However, there aren’t enough beta cells available for everyone who needs a transplant. Dr Elisa De Franco wants to find the genes that control the development of beta cells, by studying babies born with neonatal diabetes, to see if these genes could be used to make beta cells in the lab.
Background to research
An islet transplant is a treatment that sees healthy beta cells transplanted into a person with type 1 diabetes. This can mean the person with type 1 no longer needs insulin injections, as the beta cells will produce their own insulin. Unfortunately, there is a limited number of donor beta cells available, as well as a risk of the body rejecting the transplant.
Ideally, scientists could use stem cells (cells that have the potential to become a wide range of different human cells) to make bespoke beta cells in a lab. These bespoke cells could then be transplanted into a person with type 1 diabetes.
However, we don’t fully understand how beta cells develop. While scientists have been able to make cells that can produce insulin in the lab, it’s currently not possible to make a full human beta cell. It’s likely that there are a number of genes which control the development of beta cells, and Dr De Franco wants to find them.
Dr De Franco will look at the genes of babies with neonatal diabetes: a form of diabetes where babies are born with very few, or sometimes no, beta cells. By studying the genetics of these babies, the research team will try to find genes that have mutated and are preventing the normal development of the beta cells.
Once Dr De Franco has found these mutations, she will then introduce them into stem cells in the lab to try and recreate the process, to understand how these genes control beta cell development.
Potential benefit to people with diabetes
Finding the genes controlling the development of beta cells in real life could help scientists to make fully formed beta cells in a laboratory. These cells could potentially be used for islet transplants, expanding their reach as a treatment for people with type 1 diabetes. It could also help us to discover the genes that cause neonatal diabetes.