It May Take ‘Guts’ to Cure Diabetes

Jul 9, 2014

By Bioscience Technology

By switching off a single gene, scientists at Columbia University’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center have converted human gastrointestinal cells into insulin-producing cells, demonstrating in principle that a drug could retrain cells inside a person’s GI tract to produce insulin.

The new research was reported today in the online issue of the journal Nature Communications.

“People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn’t gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target,” said the study’s senior author, Domenico Accili, the Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes (in Medicine) at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

The finding raises the possibility that cells lost in type 1 diabetes may be more easily replaced through the reeducation of existing cells than through the transplantation of new cells created from embryonic or adult stem cells.

For nearly two decades, researchers have been trying to make surrogate insulin-producing cells for type 1 diabetes patients. In type 1 diabetes, the body’s natural insulin-producing cells are destroyed by the immune system.

Although insulin-producing cells can now be made in the lab from stem cells, these cells do not yet have all the functions of naturally occurring pancreatic beta cells.

This has led some researchers to try instead to transform existing cells in a patient into insulin-producers. Previous work by Accili’s lab had shown that mouse intestinal cells can be transformed into insulin-producing cells; the current Columbia study shows that this technique also works in human cells.

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