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Designer beta cells - a new treatment for diabetes?

12 December 2016

Scientists are developing a new cell-based treatment for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, who are using insulin therapy.

A team in Switzerland have engineered human kidney cells to release insulin in response to blood glucose levels. These designer cells could potentially be put in a capsule and implanted under the skin to treat both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in the future.

All about the beta cell

Insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, known as beta cells, are responsible for keeping our blood glucose levels in check. When glucose levels rise, beta cells produce more insulin to control them.

Beta cells are destroyed by the immune system in Type 1 diabetes and stop working properly in Type 2 diabetes, so scientists are looking for ways to make new ones. 

A new approach

Researchers around the world are trying to turn stem cells into beta cells in the lab, and while some progress has been made, it’s a long and expensive process.

That’s why the team in Switzerland took a different approach. They genetically altered a type of cell called a HEK cell (a human kidney cell) to sense glucose levels in the blood and produce insulin as required.

The cells have only been tested in mice so far, where they successfully controlled blood glucose levels. If the approach is shown to be safe and effective in people with diabetes in the future, these cells could potentially used as a new treatment.

The future of designer beta cells

Dr Emily Burns, Research Communications Manager at Diabetes UK, said: “We can already replace the cells in the pancreas that are damaged in Type 1 diabetes by using cells taken from donated pancreases, but one of the issues with this approach is that there aren’t enough donors. That’s why research like this is so important: finding ways to produce an unlimited supply of pancreatic cells, or cells that act like them, in the lab.”

“It’s still early days as strategies like this haven’t been tested in people yet, but it is a really promising area of research that could benefit people with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes in the future.”

More science?

The scientists genetically engineered a HEK cell to make it work like an insulin-producing beta cell. First, they added a gene that tells calcium to rush into the cell when blood glucose levels are high. This means that the amount of calcium inside the cell represents the levels of glucose outside.

Then, they engineered the cell again so that it produced the hormones needed to control glucose levels in response to calcium. The more calcium there is, the more hormones there are produced. 

In this way, the cleverly engineered HEK cells can respond to changing glucose levels and produce just the right amount of insulin.

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