Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Penn State team converts stem cells to insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells

The human body can be genetically inclined to attack its own cells, destroying the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin, which helps convert sugar into energy. Called Type 1 diabetes, this disorder can occur at any age and can be fatal if not carefully managed with insulin shots or an insulin pump to balance the body’s sugar levels. But there may be another, personalized option on the horizon, according to Xiaojun Lian, associate professor of biomedical engineering and biology at Penn State. Lian and his team converted human embryonic stem cells into beta cells capable of producing insulin using only small molecules in the laboratory, making the process more efficient and cost effective. Stem cells can become other cell types through signals in their environment, and some mature cells can revert to stem cells – induced pluripotency. The researchers found that their approach worked for human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells, both derived from federally approved stem-cell lines. According to Lian, the effectiveness of their approach could reduce or eliminate the need for human embryonic stem cells in future work. “Diabetes is a severe disease in the United States and around the world,” Lian said. “The patient’s own immune cells kill their ability to produce insulin and regulate their glucose levels. We thought stem cells could potentially solve the problem and allow a person to regulate their insulin and glucose levels appropriately again.” Stem cells can become any cell type through environmental conditions or laboratory interference. The trick, Lian said, is figuring out the precise conditions to sway a stem cell to become a functioning version of the desired cell type. “If we could convert stem cells into pancreatic beta cells and transfer them back to the patient, it might be possible to cure diabetes,” Lian said. “It’s a difficult question. Scientists have been trying to find the solution for more than 20 years. Our lab realized we had to take a different approach.” In previous attempts, according to Lian, researchers used growth factors, or groups of proteins, to manipulate stem cells into various cell types. Growth factors, however, are expensive and unstable, resulting in a costly and inefficient manufacturing process. “Our approach allows us to use the same low-cost chemical at different doses to generate different intermediate cell types, one of which can become pancreatic beta cells,” Lian said. “We’re now working to optimize this approach and move it to clinical trials, but we’ve done the hard work of significantly lowering the cost. Cell therapy is amazing, but not everybody can afford it. Our goal is to make it available to everyone who needs it.”

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