Stem cell research is a promising component of what we hope will bring about a cure-like therapy for diabetes. It may also provide models that enable the unraveling of Type 1 Diabetes and the mechanisms that bring about an auto-immune attack on islet cells.
We understand the ethical problems with destroying and harvesting an immature human in support of embryonic stem cell research. In addition, ESCR carries with it other challenges that have signifantly limited practical success including rejection and the potential for unpredictable growth.
Adult stem cells, derived from the same person they will be used to eventually treat, may enable the growth of insulin-producing cells, which could be used to repair the imcomplete pancreas. Alok Jha, writing for the Observer, has an excellent piece that details the advantage that reprogrammed adult stem cells have:
Key to this is the discovery, in the past few years, of a way to make stem cells that do not require the destruction of embryos. In one move, these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells remove the ethical roadblocks faced by embryonic stem cells and, because they are so much easier to make, give scientists an inexhaustible supply of material, bringing them ever closer to those hoped-for treatments.
In 2007, Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University in Japan demonstrated a way of producing ES-like cells without using eggs. He took a skin cell and, using a virus, inserted four specific bits of DNA into the skin cell’s nucleus. The skin cell incorporated the genetic material and was regressed into an ES-like cell – it had been “reprogrammed” using a batch of chemicals in the lab. In a few short experiments, scientists had a near-limitless supply of stem cells that were, seemingly, as good as ES cells for their research.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the key applications for these cells is the development of models to study disease states:
Models using iPS cells have proliferated in a few short years: they are now available for, among other things, motor neurone disease, juvenile diabetes and sickle cell anaemia.
Those who receive transplants require immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives to prevent their immune systems from attacking the new tissue – this carries risks in and of itself. However, adult stem cells have the potential of being derived from genetically matched tissue for patients, “so rejection should, in theory, not be a problem.”
But how real is this? Consider this peer reviewed article appearing in the Proceeding so f the National Academy of the Sciences:
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is the result of an autoimmune destruction of pancreatic β cells. The cellular and molecular defects that cause the disease remain unknown. Pluripotent cells generated from patients with T1D would be useful for disease modeling. We show here that induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells can be generated from patients with T1D by reprogramming their adult fibroblasts with three transcription factors (OCT4, SOX2, KLF4). T1D-specific iPS cells, termed DiPS cells, have the hallmarks of pluripotency and can be differentiated into insulin-producing cells. These results are a step toward using DiPS cells in T1D disease modeling, as well as for cell replacement therapy.
This photo, appearing in the article, includes images of the Type 1 Diabetes induced pluripotent stem (DiPS) cells that responded like pancreatic cells by releasing insulin on glucose stimulation in a manner proportional to concentration
So, this is real but not the end game. It is a building block, a model that will get us to the solution.
Top Photo Credit: The Boston University Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) Cell Bank (source): “iPS cells are theoretically easily obtained from virtually any human being. Only recently, however, have methods become available to generate ‘clinical grade’ iPS cells that are free of any residual reprogramming transgenes.”