JDRF-linked Harvard researchers have announced a ‘giant leap forward’ in type 1 diabetes treatment research.
The front page headline of the Times states “Diabetes: a cure at last.” Today’s news does not mean the cure has been discovered. But it is nonetheless a major research breakthrough.
The work to grow large numbers of insulin-producing beta cells in the lab, led by Dr Doug Melton, could be crucial in the field of encapsulation therapy – which would eliminate the need to inject insulin. Dr Melton is a ‘diabetes dad’ who was inspired to dedicate his life to type 1 diabetes research by the diagnosis of his son.
Until now, the route to growing functioning beta cells from stem cells was slow and produced the cells in small numbers. It involved converting stem cells into immature beta cells, which then needed time to mature before becoming fully functional.
This means that type 1 diabetes researchers have been hampered in their efforts to develop new treatments for type 1 by a lack of large numbers of human beta cells, either derived through this lengthy process or from donated tissue.
The large-scale system being developed by the Harvard team could greatly expand the number of human beta cells available. These could then be used for testing new drugs, or in novel encapsulation systems, speeding up the research pipeline.
Dr Richard Insel, Chief Scientific Officer at JDRF in the US, said: ‘JDRF is thrilled with this advancement toward large scale production of mature, functional human beta cells by Dr Melton and his team.
‘This significant accomplishment has the potential to serve as a cell source for islet replacement in people with type 1 diabetes, and may provide a resource for discovery of beta cell therapies that promote survival or regeneration of beta cells.’
Melton, who has received multiple JDRF research grants since he began his work in type 1 research 23 years ago, said: ‘You never know for sure that something like this is going to work until you've tested it numerous ways. We've given these cells three separate challenges with glucose in mice and they've responded appropriately; that was really exciting.’
Melton is now beginning a US$4 million project with JDRF, which will aim to learn more about these stem cell-derived beta cells, and investigate their potential for use in encapsulation systems.
The research was published in the journal Cell.
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