U.S. researchers have turned human skin cells into insulin-producing ones. These findings might lead to future treatments for the millions of people affected by diabetes. The researchers have 'reprogrammed' skin cells into 'pluripotent' stem cells, or 'cells that can give rise to any other fetal or adult cell type, and then inducing them to differentiate, or transform, into cells that perform a particular function -- in this case, secreting insulin.' But as stated the president of the American Diabetes Association, who was involved in this project, 'there are many years of additional studies that are required first, but this study provides hope for a cure for all patients with diabetes.' But read more...
You can see above some examples of skin cells becoming insulin-producing cells. (Credit: Yi Zhang et al., UNC) Here is the full caption, but feel free to skip it. "Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) "cells generated from human foreskin cells have the potential to differentiate into the three germ layers in vivo. A. Low magnification of HE staining of a section from a representative human iPS cell-derived teratoma. Cells of different lineages were observed within the tumor section. B and C. Cells of ectoderm lineage, such as the neuroprogenitors rosettes and epidermal cells suggested by HE staining (B, arrow), were confirmed by nestin (red) and cytokeratin 19 (green) staining (C). D and E. Cells of mesoderm lineage, such as the fat tissue and smooth muscle cells seen in HE staining (D, arrow), were confirmed by alpha smooth muscle actin (red) and myosin heavy chain (green) staining (E). F. HE staining reveals gut-like and airway epithelial structure, representative of endoderm lineage."
This research work was led by Yi Zhang, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill with his colleagues in his lab. Here is a quote from Zhang. "Not only have we shown that we can reprogram skin cells, but we have also demonstrated that these reprogrammed cells can be differentiated into insulin-producing cells which hold great therapeutic potential for diabetes."
Zhang is collaborating with John Buse, president of the American Diabetes Association and professor and chief of the endocrinology division in the UNC School of Medicine's department of medicine, to obtain skin samples from diabetes patients. "He said he hoped his current experiments will take this approach one step closer to a new treatment or even a cure for diabetes."
But will these researchers succeed? Here is the current status. "Virtually all patients with type I diabetes, the more severe of the two types, must rely on daily injections of insulin to maintain their blood sugar levels. Recent research exploring a possible long-term treatment -- the transplantation of insulin-producing beta cells into patients -- has yielded promising results. But this approach faces its own challenges, given the extreme shortage of matched organ donors and the need to suppress patients' immune systems. The work by Zhang and other researchers could potentially address those problems."
This research work has been published online ahead of print on September 9, 2008 by the Journal of Biological Chemistry under the title "Generation of insulin-secreting islet-like clusters from human skin fibroblasts." Here is the beginning of the abstract. "Increasing evidence suggests that islet cell transplantation for patients with type I diabetes holds great promise for achieving insulin independence. However, the extreme shortage of matched organ donors and the necessity for chronic immunosuppression has made it impossible for this treatment to be used for the general diabetic population. Recent success in generating insulin-secreting islet-like cells from human ES cells, in combination with the success in deriving human ES cell-like induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from human fibroblasts by defined factors have raised the possibility that patient-specific insulin-secreting islet-like cells might be derived from somatic cells through cell fate reprogramming using defined factors."
And here is a link to the accepted paper (PDF format, Japanesee fonts necessary, 15 pages, 5.59 MB), from which the above figure and its caption have been extracted.
If you're affected by diabetes -- or if someone close to you is -- this research might give you some hope. But it will take years before this research work moves from the lab to you.
Sources: University of North Carolina School of Medicine news release, September 17, 2008; and various websites
You'll find related stories by following the links below.