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Stem cells offer new treatment for diabetes
November 26, 2017, 2:29 pm
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Over 400 million people worldwide, or 11 percent of the global adult population, have been diagnosed with diabetes. This number is projected to cross 640 million by 2040. Diabetes patients generally lack the ability to produce sufficient amounts of insulin (type 1 diabetes), or cannot use the insulin produced efficiently (type 2 diabetes), to regulate the blood sugar in their body. Diabetes can lead to a number of complications and in many cases it can be potentially fatal.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have now shown that they could use human stem cells to produce insulin-producing cells that in the future can be transplanted into diabetes patients.

'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 to human stem cells to more robustly make beta cells, said the university team.

The team originally set out to study how the body creates the complex piping systems that transport fluids and gasses in our organs. They wanted to understand the machinery that instructs progenitor cells into their different destinies. To their surprise, the mechanism turned out to be simple. According to the researchers the process was mainly controlled by the progenitors' ability to tell up from down (the cells' so-called polarity).

“It turns out that the same signal — the so-called epidermal growth factor (EGF) pathway — controls 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 a really amazing and simple mechanism, and by affecting the progenitor cells' so-called polarity we can control their conversion into beta cells,” wrote the team in the report on their study.

The study was mainly based on tests performed on mice, but the researchers later discovered that the same cell maturation mechanism applies to the development of human cells. So the new knowledge could be used to turn human stem cells into beta cells in the laboratory with the hope of using them to replace lost beta cells in patients suffering from diabetes.

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