Microphysiologist Matthias Hebrok and the team of researchers led by Dr. Gopika Nair of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have succeeded in obtaining pancreatic beta cells derived from stem cells, thus opening up new hopes in the treatment of type I diabetes.
Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas, which regulate blood glucose levels. Blood glucose peaks caused by this dysfunction can severely damage organs and in some cases be fatal.
Today, it is possible to control this disease thanks to drugs, to which the patient is bound for life, or thanks to the transplantation of pancreas or pancreatic cells, of which there is a very limited availability. In recent years, many researchers have tried to find a solution to the problems associated with drugs and transplants, but only now, this solution may have been found.
Hebrok and his colleagues have studied how the pancreas produces beta cells in order to replicate them in laboratory, starting from stem cells: «We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies», explains the microphysiologist.
The researchers injected the replicated cells into healthy laboratory mice, successfully recording that they produced insulin in response to blood sugar levels. The study – published last February 2019 in the journal Nature Cell Biology – must now investigate, with the help of bioengineers and geneticists, whether it is possible to transplant these cells into people with type I diabetes without being destroyed by their immune system.
For this purpose, it will be necessary to use the CRISPR technique – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – to genetically modify the replicated cells and make them “invisible” to the immune system: «This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes», concludes Matthias Hebrok.