Diabetes afflicts 415 million people worldwide, and the numbers continue to rise. A new study showed how insulin-producing cells could be produced by using human stem cells that could in the future be transplanted into diabetic patients.
The lack of the ability to produce sufficient amounts of insulin (regulates the blood sugar in the body), is common in all diabetes patients. Some complications may lead to serious conditions which may be potentially fatal in many cases.
Henrik Semb Professor from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology said, 'By identifying the signals that instruct mouse progenitor cells to become cells that make tubes and later insulin-producing beta cells, we can transfer this knowledge of human stem cells to more robustly make beta cells.’
Pia Nyeng, an assistant professor, studied how the body creates the complex piping systems that transport fluids and gasses in our organs. To commit progenitor cells to their different destinies, researchers wanted to understand the machinery. According to Pia Nyeng, the progenitors' ability to tell up from down (the cells' so-called polarity) controlled these processes.
Pia Nyeng said, "It turns out that the same signal –the so-called epidermal growth factor (EGF) pathway — control both the formation of pipes and beta cells through polarity changes. Therefore, the development of pancreatic progenitor into beta cells depends on their orientation in the pipes. It is an amazing and simple mechanism, and by affecting the progenitor cells' so-called polarity, we can control their conversion into beta cells".
While these studies were performed in mice, Henrik Semb said, for the development of human cells, the same cell maturation mechanism applied, which was discovered by Zarah Löf-Öhlin. This knowledge was used in the laboratory to efficiently turn human stem cells into beta cells. It is hoped that laboratory produced beta cells can be used to replace lost beta cells in patients suffering from diabetes.
The researchers expect this regulation of cell polarity will be key to the development of many other human cell types, for example, nerve cells. This can be the road ahead for the development of stem cell therapy targeted at other diseases as well.