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Stem Cell Science: Taking Aim at Type 1 Diabetes

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human stem cell-derived beta cells

Caption: Insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells (green) derived from human embryonic stem cells that have formed islet-like clusters in a mouse. The red cells are producing another metabolic hormone, glucagon, that regulates blood glucose levels. Blue indicates cell nuclei.
Credit: Photo by B. D. Colen/Harvard Staff; Image courtesy of Doug Melton

For most of the estimated 1 to 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, every day brings multiple fingerpricks to manage their blood glucose levels with replacement insulin [1,2]. The reason is that their own immune systems have somehow engaged in friendly fire on small, but vital, clusters of cells in the pancreas known as the islets—which harbor the so-called “beta cells” that make insulin. So, it’s no surprise that researchers seeking ways to help people with type 1 diabetes have spent decades trying a find a reliable way to replace these islets.

Islet replacement has proven to be an extremely difficult research challenge for a variety of reasons, but exciting opportunities are now on the horizon. Notably, a team of researchers, led by Douglas Melton of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and partially funded by NIH, reported groundbreaking success just last week in spurring a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line and two human-induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines to differentiate into the crucial, insulin-producing beta cells. Not only did cells generated from all three of these lines look like human pancreatic beta cells, they functioned like bona fide, glucose-responsive beta cells in a mouse model of type 1 diabetes [3].


More Beta Cells, More Insulin, Less Diabetes

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Artist redition of a liver, WAT fat, and BAT fat cells combining with green dots representing betatrophin combining to induce pancreatic cells

Caption: Betatrophin, a natural hormone produced in liver and fat cells, triggers the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas to replicate
Credit: Douglas Melton and Peng Yi

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) has arguably reached epidemic levels in this country; between 22 and 24 million people suffer from the disease. But now there’s an exciting new development: scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have discovered a hormone that might slow or stop the progression of diabetes [1].

T2D is the most common type of diabetes, accounting for about 95% of cases. The hallmark is high blood sugar. It is linked to obesity, which increases the body’s demand for more and more insulin. T2D develops when specific insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, called beta cells, become exhausted and can’t keep up with the increased demand. With insufficient insulin, blood glucose levels rise. Over time, these high levels of glucose can lead to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, nerve damage, and even amputations. T2D can be helped by weight loss and exercise, but often oral medication or insulin shots are ultimately needed.


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