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Researchers make new pancreatic cells from fat

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12 April 2016

Using 'genetic software' to reprogram cells

Stem cells originally taken from fat can be reprogrammed, turning them into insulin-producing pancreatic cells. That’s what researchers in Basel have shown in their latest work published in Nature Communications today.

Overcoming islet transplant barriers

Islet transplantsare used to treat people with Type 1 diabetes that have lost their ability to sense hypoglycaemia (dangerously low blood glucose levels). These transplants can be life changing, but there are some challenges.

There are a limited number of donors available, and the cells can often die during or after the transplantation. Aside from this, the immune system often attacks the new cells. Scientists around the world are trying to overcome these challenges, from developing new ways to create pancreatic cells without the need for donors, towrapping the transplanted cells up to hide them from the immune system

Making pancreatic cells from scratch

This latest study presents a new way to make insulin-producing pancreatic cells in the lab. First, they have extracted stem cells (cells that have the ability to turn into any type of cell) from human fat tissue. They then used a new ‘genetic software’ that could switch on particular chemical triggers at exactly the right time, turning stem cells into pancreatic cells. 

The pancreatic cells they created could produce insulin and respond to glucose. 

While other labs are developing techniques to turn stem cells into pancreatic cells, they have focused mainly on adding chemicals and proteins called ‘growth factors’. This is the first time a team had successfully used this new ‘genetic software’ to do so. 

The next steps will be to see if this approach can prevent or treat Type 1 diabetes in an animal model. Then, if successful, they’ll be ready to move into human studies. 

What are we doing? 

We’re funding Professor James Shaw at Newcastle University to develop atransplanting method that improves blood and oxygen supply, helping to keep the cells alive. We’re also funding Dr Shareen Forbes at the University of Edinburgh to investigate whetherparticular hormone treatments could make transplants more effective

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