Love handles usually get a bad rap, but this week, a study from Switzerland claims that stem cells taken from the fat tissue of “love handles” could one day benefit diabetes patients.
The study, which was published in Nature Communications, generated the much coveted insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) in a dish. When exposed to glucose (sugar), beta cells secrete the hormone insulin, which can tell muscle and fat tissue to absorb excess glucose if there is too much around. Without these important cells, your body wouldn’t be able to regulate the sugar levels in your blood, and you would be at high risk for getting diabetes.
Diabetic patients can take daily shots of insulin to manage their disease, but scientists are looking to stem cells for a more permanent solution. Their goal is to make bonafide beta cells from human pluripotent stem cells in a dish that behave exactly the same as ones living in a normal human pancreas. Current methods to make beta cells from stem cells are complex, too often yield inconsistent results and generate multiple other cell types.
Turning fat tissue into pancreatic cells
The Switzerland study developed a novel method for making beta cells from iPS cells that is efficient and gives more consistent results. The iPS cells were genetically reprogrammed from mesenchymal stem cells that had been extracted from the fat tissue of a 50-year old woman. To create insulin-secreting beta cells, the group developed a synthetic control network that directed the iPS cells step by step down the path towards becoming pancreatic beta cells.
The synthetic control network coordinated the expression of genes called transcription factors that are important for pancreatic development. The network could be thought of as an orchestra. At the start of a symphony, the conductor signals to different instrument groups to begin and then directs the tempo and sound of the performance, making sure each instrument plays at the right time.
In the case of this study, the synthetic gene network coordinates expression of three pancreatic transcription factors: Ngn2, Pdx1, and MafA. When the expression of these genes was coordinated in a precise way that mimicked natural beta cell development, the pancreatic progenitor cells developed into functioning beta-like cells that secreted insulin in the presence of glucose.
Pros of love handle-derived beta cells
This technology has advantages over current stem cell-derived beta cell generating methods, which typically use combinations of genetic reprogramming factors, chemicals, or proteins. Senior author on the study, Martin Fussenegger, explained in a news release that his study’s method has more control over the timing of pancreatic gene expression and as a result is more efficient, having the ability to turn three out of four fat stem cells into functioning beta cells.
Another benefit to this technology is the potential for making personalized stem cell treatments for diabetes sufferers. Patient-specific beta cells derived from iPS cells can be transplanted without fear of immune rejection (it’s what’s called an autologous stem cell therapy). Some diabetes patients have received pancreatic tissue transplants from donors, but they have to take immunosuppressive drugs and even then, there is no guarantee that the transplant will survive and work properly for an extended period of time.
“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action, since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient’s own body. This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes.”
More work to do
While these findings are definitely exciting, there is still a long road ahead. The authors found that their beta cells did not perform at the same level as natural beta cells. When exposed to glucose, the stem cell-derived beta cells failed to secrete the same amount of insulin. So it sounds like the group needs to do some tweaking with their method in order to generate more mature beta cells.
Lastly, it’s definitely worth looking at the big picture. This study was done in a culture dish, and the beta cells they generated were not tested in animals or humans. Such transplantation experiments are necessary to determine whether love-handle derived beta cells will be an appropriate and effective treatment for diabetes patients.
A CIRM funded team at San Diego-based company ViaCyte seems to have successfully gotten around the issue of maturing beta cells from stem cells and is already testing their therapy in clinical trials. Their study involves transplanting so-called pancreatic progenitor cells (derived from embryonic stem cells) that are only part way down the path to becoming beta cells. They transplant these cells in an encapsulated medical device placed under the skin where they receive natural cues from the surrounding tissue that direct their growth into mature beta cells. Several patients have been transplanted with these cells in a CIRM funded Phase 1/2 clinical trial, but no data have been released as yet.