UCSD School of Medicine scientists have successfully cultured human beta cells that grow indefinitely, and that could potentially serve as an unlimited source of insulin-producing tissue for transplantation to cure people with diabetes, according to reports presented at the American Diabetes Association’s 60th Annual Scientific Sessions in San Antonio.
Beta cells are found exclusively in the pancreas, secreting insulin in response to glucose stimulation. When these cells are defective or when the body fails to utilize insulin properly, the result is diabetes, characterized by high blood sugar levels. More than 16 million Americans have diabetes, the sixth leading cause of death by disease in the United States.
One approach to treating diabetes is transplantation of either the pancreas or of islet cells which contain beta cells, giving the patient a new source of insulin. Recent advances in these techniques indicate that this is a successful approach, but limited due to the scarcity of donor tissue from cadavers.
“Even if you had unlimited success with tissue transplantation, there is simply not enough donor tissue to treat the millions of people who have diabetes,” said Fred Levine, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the UCSD Cancer Center and the Whittier Institute in San Diego, whose laboratory reported the successful results. “We have now been able to create an immortal human cell line, and have demonstrated in mice that these cells are functional when transplanted, secreting insulin in response to glucose stimulation.”
These results are the culmination of eight years of work by Levine and his colleagues to create the correct genetic cocktail, giving the beta cells the ability to endlessly reproduce, while counteracting the malignant behavior in order to prevent tumor formation.
There is further work to be done, stresses Levine, including more studies to ensure that these cells can be produced in enough quantity to be effective in a larger animal. If all goes well, he said, it might be possible to consider human studies in a few years.