Harvard researchers grow insulin-producing stem cells

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 9 (UPI) -- Patients with type 1 diabetes lack the insulin-producing cells that keep blood glucose levels in check. Currently, these patients must use insulin pumps or daily hormone injections to keep levels stable.

But in a recent breakthrough in laboratories at Harvard University, researchers came upon a new technique for transforming stem cells into pancreatic beta cells that respond to glucose levels and produce insulin when necessary. The breakthrough could lead to new less invasive, more hands-off treatment for diabetes.

Remarkably, the new technique -- a complex process which involves turning on and off specific genes and takes about 40 days and six precise steps to complete -- was replicated not only on embryonic stem cells but also on human skin cells reprogrammed to act in a stem-cell-like manner. This revelation allows scientists to produce millions of insulin-producing cells while avoiding the ethical dilemmas attached to traditional stem cell research.

Previous attempts to convert stem cells into insulin-producers have proven moderately successful, but these cells mostly produced insulin at will, unable to adjust their output on the fly. The latest techniques -- developed by Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and his research colleagues -- produce insulin cells that react to glucose spikes by upping production, and lowering insulin output when there's not excess sugar to break down.

The breakthrough has already shown significant promise when used on lab mice. Diabetic mice who received a transplant of the stem cell beta cells had improved blood sugar levels, and were shown to be capable of breaking down sugar.

"We can cure their diabetes right away -- in less than 10 days," Melton told NPR. "This finding provides a kind of unprecedented cell source that could be used for cell transplantation therapy in diabetes."

But there's still one major issue. For reasons doctors still don't understand, the beta cells in humans with diabetes are attacked by the body's immune system. Researchers like Melton still have to figure out a way to protect the new beta cells from being killed -- otherwise the breakthrough won't become anything more than another short-term solution.

"It's taken me 10 to 15 years to get to this point, and I consider this a major step forward," Melton told TIME. "But the longer term plan includes finding ways to protect these cells, and we haven't solved that problem yet."

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Harvard researchers grow insulin-producing stem cells

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