A team of established researchers have discovered a pathway for the regeneration of insulin in pancreatic stem cells, a major breakthrough towards new therapies to treat type 1 diabetes.
Using the pancreas stem cells of a donor with type 1 diabetes, researchers from Monash University were able to effectively reactivate them to become insulin-expressing and functionally resemble beta-like cells through the use of an FDA-approved drug.
The new approach, though it requires further work, would in principle allow insulin-producing cells (beta-cells) that are destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes to be replaced with new insulin-generating cells.
The study, led by diabetes experts Professor Sam El-Osta, and Dr Ishant Khurana, may lead to a potential treatment option for insulin-dependent diabetes.
As the number of cases of diabetes worldwide approaches 500 million, researchers are facing the challenge of improving a currently limited pool of treatments with unclear effectiveness.
“We consider that our research is novel and is an important step forward towards developing new therapies,” said Professor El-Osta.
To restore insulin expression in a damaged pancreas, the researchers had to overcome a series of challenges since the diabetic pancreas was often thought to be too damaged to heal.
According to Professor El-Osta, by the time an individual is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes many of their pancreatic beta cells, which produce insulin, have been totally destroyed.
These studies show, he said, that “the diabetic pancreas is not incapable of expressing insulin” and that the proof-of-concept experiments “address unmet medical needs in type 1 diabetes.”
The advances in the genetics of diabetes have brought a “greater understanding and along with it a resurgence of interest in the development of potential therapies,” said Professor El-Osta.
He added: “People rely on daily insulin injections to replace what would have been produced by the pancreas.
“Currently, the only other effective therapy requires pancreatic islet transplantation and while this has improved health outcomes for individuals with diabetes, transplantation relies on organ donors, so it has limited widespread use.”
Co-author of the study, Dr Al-Hasani said: “Before you get to people, there are many issues to be resolved.
“More work is required to define the properties of these cells and establish protocols to isolate and expand them.”
He concluded: “I would think therapy is pretty far away. However, this represents an important step along the way to devising a lasting treatment that might be applicable for all types of diabetes.”