A cure for diabetes could be a step closer, following successful experiments in mice to turn immature embryonic cells into cells that produce insulin. Researchers from the Danish Stem Cell Centre (Danstem) and Swiss-based technological institute École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) created viable miniature mouse pancreases using progenitor cells taken from embryos, and believe the same scientific principles could be applied to help the 382 million people world-wide affected by diabetes.
COPENHAGEN, DENMARK (REUTERS / HANDOUT) - These mouse embryos lie at the heart of groundbreaking stem cell research that scientists say could one day lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes.
Researchers from the Danish Stem Cell Centre are taking tiny progenitor cells from embryos and mixing them with a protein gel. They develop to become beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin.
MANUEL FIGUEIREDO-LARSEN (PRON: Figga-Reddo), PHD STUDENT AT DANSTEM
"We can pull out 40,000 cells from one growing organoid, but of course we can work with much more material, so we can actually expand this so-called progenitor mass even more."
Cell material from mouse embryos less than two weeks old grows fast to become tree-like structures, according to lead scientist Professor Anne Grapin-Botton.
"What we're looking at now is pancreas progenitors in green, as they differentiate and they become beta cells, the cells that are dying in type-1 diabetes patients, and the red cells are the cells that are becoming beta."
And in most people, those beta cells are vital to maintaining healthy glucose levels in the bloodstream. But not for Type 1 diabetics. For them insulin can only be provided by daily injections. Their own beta cells are treated as enemies by their immune system which attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas.
But now, having proven the concept of building new beta cells in animal models, Grapin-Botton, says the next stage is even more exciting.
"So now we're in mouse we have to move to human, and our dream is to make a small human pancreas in a dish because we study mouse and that's very similar to human development, but there may be small differences."
The researchers say a mini human pancreas could be used to transplant newly created beta cells into patients' bodies.
Grapin-Botton believes her team's work is an important step on the road to curing type-1 diabetes. She says type 2 patients, whose cells fail to respond properly to insulin, could eventually be helped too.
But major hurdles remain. Transplanted beta cells could still be at risk of attack by a diabetic's immune system. Other scientists are working on encapsulation devices to isolate and protect those cells, but the Danish team are confident that a disease affecting nearly 400 million people around the world could soon meet its match.