Scientists have for the first time created insulin-producing cells in the laboratory, a discovery that could transform the way we treat diabetes.
"It's quite a big breakthrough," Chris Liddle from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, and co-author of the report, told reporters.
The pancreatic beta cells, which produce the glucose regulating hormone, were grown from human stem cells after the researchers identified the “switch” that prompts prompt foetal beta cells to start producing insulin.
They say the breakthrough could lead to transplants of the beta cells, created from type 1 diabetes patients’ own stem cells.
Until now, while researchers have produced beta cells, they have unable to get them to produce insulin and the international team that did it say they owe the breakthrough to their unconventional approach to the problem.
“We're heretics in this field,” Liddle told ABC News. “We don't come from a diabetes background, we come from a much more metabolic regulation background.
“So we looked at it as not being a problem of cell differentiation but a problem of regulation and to get the regulation working right you just needed to turn the switch on.”
They discovered that the adult cells had much higher levels of a protein called “estrogen-related receptor y” (ERRy).
When they forced the immature stem cell-derived beta cells to produce more ERRy the cells began to produce insulin in response to glucose stimulation as happens in the normal functioning pancreas.
“This work transitions us to a new era in creating functional beta cells at will,” said lead researcher Ronald Evans, of the Salk Institute in San Diego.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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