From Pig Parts to Stem Cells: Scientist Douglas Melton Wins Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize for Work on Diabetes

Since the 1920s, insulin injections have remained the best solution for managing type 1 diabetes. Patients with this disease do not make enough insulin – a hormone that regulates the sugar levels in your blood – because the insulin-producing cells, or beta cells, in their pancreas are destroyed.

Back then, it took two tons of pig parts to make eight ounces of insulin, which was enough to treat 10,000 diabetic patients for six months. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies have since developed different types of human insulin treatments that include fast and long acting versions of the hormone. It’s estimated that $22 billion will be spent on developing insulin products for patients this year and that costs will rise to $32 billion in the year 2019.

These costs are necessary to keep insulin-dependent diabetes patients alive and healthy, but what if there was a different, potentially simpler solution to manage diabetes? One that looks to insulin-producing beta cells as the solution rather than daily hormone shots?

Douglas Melton Receives Stem Cell Prize for Work on Diabetes

Harvard scientist Douglas Melton envisions a world where one day, insulin-dependent diabetic patients are given stem cell transplants rather than shots to manage their diabetes. In the 90s, Melton’s son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Motivated by his son’s diagnosis, Melton dedicated the focus of his research on understanding how beta cells develop from stem cells in the body and also in a cell culture dish.

Almost 30 years later, Melton has made huge strides towards understanding the biology of beta cell development and has generated methods to “reprogram” or coax pluripotent stem cells into human beta cells.

Melton was honored for his important contributions to stem cell and diabetes research at the second annual Ogawa-Yamanaka Stem Cell Prize ceremony last week at the Gladstone Institutes. This award recognizes outstanding scientists that are translating stem cell research from the lab to clinical trials in patients.

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Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, explained why Melton was selected as this year’s prize winner:

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes

“Doug’s research on genetic markers expressed during pancreas development have led to a reliable way to reprogram stem cells into human beta cells. His work provides the foundation for the ultimate goal of transplantable, patient-specific beta cells.”

 

Making Beta Cells for Patients

During the awards ceremony, Melton discussed his latest work on generating beta cells from human stem cells and how this technology could transform the way insulin-dependent patients are treated.

Douglas Melton, Harvard University.

Douglas Melton, Harvard University.

“I don’t mean to say that this [insulin treatment] isn’t a good idea. That’s keeping these people alive and in good health,” said Melton during his lecture. “What I want to talk about is a different approach. Rather than making more and better insulins and providing them by different medical devices, why not go back to nature’s solution which is the beta cells that makes the insulin?”

Melton first described his initial research on making pancreatic beta cells from embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells in a culture dish. He described the power of this system for not only modeling diabetes, but also screening for potential drugs, and testing new therapies in animal models.

He also mentioned how he and his colleagues are developing methods to manufacture large amounts of human beta cells derived from pluripotent stem cells for use in patients. They are able to culture stem cells in large spinning flasks that accelerate the growth and development of pluripotent stem cells into billions of human beta cells.

Challenges and Future of Stem-Cell Derived Diabetes Treatments

Melton expressed a positive outlook for the future of stem cell-derived treatments for insulin-dependent diabetes, but he also mentioned two major challenges. The first is the need for better control over the methods that make beta cells from stem cells. These methods could be more efficient and generate higher numbers of beta cells (beta cells make up 16% of stem cell-derived cells using their current culturing methods). The second is preventing an autoimmune attack after transplanting the stem-cell derived beta cells into patients.

Melton and other scientists are already working on improving techniques to make more beta cells from stem cells. As for preventing transplanted beta cells from being attacked by the patient’s immune system, Melton described two possibilities: using an encapsulation device or biological protection to mask the transplanted cells from an attack.

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He mentioned a CIRM-funded clinical trial by ViaCyte, which is testing an encapsulation device that is placed under the skin. The device contains embryonic stem cell-derived pancreatic progenitor cells that develop into beta cells that secrete insulin into the blood stream. The device also prevents the immune system from attacking and killing the beta cells.

Melton also discussed a biological approach to protecting transplanted beta cells. In collaboration with Dan Anderson at MIT, they coated stem cell-derived beta cells in a biomaterial called alginate, which comes from seaweed. They injected alginate microcapsule-containing beta cells into diabetic mice and were able control their blood sugar levels.

At the end of his talk, Melton concluded that he believes that beta cell transplantation in an immunoprotective device containing stem cell-derived cells will have the most benefit for diabetes patients.

Gladstone Youtube video of Douglas Melton’s lecture at the Ogawa-Yamanaka Prize lecture.


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