Breakthrough for type 1 diabetes: scientist discovers how to grow insulin-producing cells

Matthias Hebrok, PhD, senior author of new study that transformed human stem cells into mature, insulin-producing cells. Photo courtesy of UCSF.

More often than not, people don’t really think about their blood sugar levels before sitting down to enjoy a delicious meal, partake in a tasty dessert, or go out for a bicycle ride. But for type 1 diabetes (T1D) patients, every minute and every action revolves around the readout from a glucose meter, a device used to measure blood sugar levels.

Normally, the pancreas contains beta cells that produce insulin in order to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range. Unfortunately, those with T1D have an immune system that destroys their own beta cells, thereby decreasing or preventing the production of insulin and in turn the regulation of blood sugar levels. Chronic spikes in blood sugar levels can lead to blindness, nerve damage, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke, and even death.

Those with T1D manage their condition by injecting themselves with insulin anywhere from two to four times a day. A light workout, slight change in diet, or even an exciting event can have a serious impact that requires a glucose meter check and an insulin injection.

There are clinical trials involving transplants of pancreatic “islets”, clusters of cells containing healthy beta cells, but these rely on pancreases from deceased donors and taking immune suppressing drugs for life.

But what if there was a way to produce healthy beta cells in a lab without the need of a transplant?

Dr. Matthias Hebrok, director of the UCSF diabetes center, and Dr. Gopika Nair, postdoctoral fellow, have discovered how to transform human stem cells into healthy, insulin producing beta cells.

In a news release written by Dr. Nicholas Weiler of UCSF, Dr. Hebrok is quoted as saying “We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes.”

For the longest time, scientists could only produce cells at an immature stage that were unable to respond to blood sugar levels and secrete insulin properly. Dr. Hebrok and Dr. Nair discovered that mimicking the “islet” formation of cells in the pancreas helped the cells mature. These cells were then transplanted into mice and found that they were fully functional, producing insulin and responding to changes blood sugar levels.

Dr. Hebrok’s team is already in collaboration with various colleagues to make these cells transplantable into patients.

Gopika Nair, PhD, postdoctoral fellow that led the study for transforming human stem cells into mature, insulin-producing cells. Photo courtesy of UCSF.

Dr. Nair in the article is also quoted as saying “Current therapeutics like insulin injections only treat the symptoms of the disease. Our work points to several exciting avenues to finally finding a cure.”

“We’re finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us,” Hebrok added. “The possibilities seem endless.” 

Dr. Hebrok, who is also a member of the CIRM funded UCSF Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, was senior author of the new study, which was published February 1, 2019 in Nature Cell Biology.

CIRM has funded three separate human clinical trials for T1D that total approximately $37.8 million in awards. Two of these trials are being conducted by ViaCyte, Inc. and the third trial is being conducted by Caladrius Biosciences.

Friday Roundup: A better kind of blood stem cell transplant; Encouraging news from spinal cord injury trial; Finding an “elusive” cell that could help diabetics

Cool Instagram image of the week:

Pancreatic Progenitors

Diabetes Research Institute scientists have confirmed that the unique stem cells reside within large ducts of the human pancreas. Two such ducts (green) surrounded by three islets (white) are shown. [Diabetes Research Institute Foundation]

Chemo- and radiation-free blood stem cell transplant showing promise

Bubble baby disease, also known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), is an inherited disorder that leaves newborns without an effective immune system. Currently, the only approved treatment for SCID is a blood stem cell transplant, in which the patient’s defective immune system cells are eliminated by chemotherapy or radiation to clear out space for cells from a healthy, matched donor. Even though the disease can be fatal, physicians loathe to perform a stem cell transplant on bubble baby patients:

Shizuru“Physicians often choose not to give chemotherapy or radiation to young children with SCID because there are lifelong effects: neurological impairment, growth delays, infertility, risk of cancer, etc.,” says Judith Shizuru, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Stanford University.

To avoid these complications, Dr. Shizuru is currently running a CIRM-funded clinical trial testing a gentler approach to prepare patients for blood stem cell transplants. She presented promising, preliminary results of the trial on Tuesday at the annual meeting of Stanford’s Center for Definitive and Curative Medicine.

Trial participants are receiving a protein antibody called CD117 before their stem cell transplant. Previous studies in animals showed that this antibody binds to the surface of blood stem cells and blocks the action of a factor which is required for stem cell survival. This property of CD117 provides a means to get rid of blood stem cells without radiation or chemotherapy.

Early results in two participants indicate that, 6 and 9 months after receiving the CD117 blood stem cell transplants, the donor cells have successfully established themselves in the patients and begun making immune cells.

Spinal cord injury trial reports more promising results:

AsteriasRegular readers of our blog will already know about our funding for the clinical trial being run by Asterias Biotherapeutics to treat spinal cord injuries. The latest news from the company is very encouraging, in terms of both the safety and effectiveness of the treatment.

Asterias is transplanting stem cells into patients who have suffered recent injuries that have left them paralyzed from the neck down. It’s hoped the treatment will restore connections at the injury site, allowing patients to regain some movement and feeling in their hands and arms.

This week the company announced that of the 25 patients they have treated there have been no serious side effects. In addition:

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans show that in more than 90 percent of the patients the cells appear to show signs of engraftment
  • At least 75 percent of those treated have recovered at least one motor level, and almost 20 percent have recovered two levels

In a news release, Michael Mulroy, Asterias’ President and CEO, said:

“The positive safety profile to date, the evidence supporting engraftment of the cells post-implantation, and the improvements we are seeing in upper extremity motor function highlight the promising findings coming from this Phase 1/2a clinical trial, which will guide us as we work to design future studies.”

There you are! Finding the “elusive” human pancreatic progenitor cells – the story behind our cool Instagram image of the week.

Don’t you hate it when you lose something and can’t find it? Well imagine the frustration of scientists who were looking for a group of cells they were sure existed but for decades they couldn’t locate them. Particularly as those cells might help in developing new treatments for diabetes.

Diabetes-Research-Institute_University-of-Miami-Miller-School-of-MedicineWell, rest easy, because scientists at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami finally found them.

In a study, published in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, the researchers show how they found these progenitor cells in the human pancreas, tucked away in the glands and ducts of the organ.

In type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed. Finding these progenitor cells, which have the ability to turn into the kinds of cells that produce insulin, means researchers could develop new ways to regenerate the pancreas’ ability to function normally.

That’s a long way away but this discovery could be an important first step along that path.

Creating partnerships to help get stem cell therapies over the finish line

Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea

Lewis & Clark & Sacagawea:

Trying to go it alone is never easy. Imagine how far Lewis would have got without Clark, or the two of them without Sacagawea. Would Batman have succeeded without Robin; Mickey without Minnie Mouse? Having a partner whose skills and expertise complements yours just makes things easier.

That’s why some recent news about two CIRM-funded companies running clinical trials was so encouraging.

Viacyte Gore

First ViaCyte, which is developing an implantable device to help people with type 1 diabetes, announced a collaborative research agreement with W. L. Gore & Associates, a global materials science company. On every level it seems like a natural fit.

ViaCyte has developed a way of maturing embryonic stem cells into an early form of the cells that produce insulin. They then insert those cells into a permeable device that can be implanted under the skin. Inside the device, the cells mature into insulin-producing cells. While ViaCyte has experience developing the cells, Gore has experience in the research, development and manufacturing of implantable devices.

Gore-tex-fabricWhat they hope to do is develop a kind of high-tech version of what Gore already does with its Gore-Tex fabrics. Gore-Tex keeps the rain out but allows your skin to breathe. To treat diabetes they need a device that keeps the immune system out, so it won’t attack the cells inside, but allows those cells to secrete insulin into the body.

As Edward Gunzel, Technical Leader for Gore PharmBIO Products, said in a news release, each side brings experience and expertise that complements the other:

“We have a proven track record of developing and commercializing innovative new materials and products to address challenging implantable medical device applications and solving difficult problems for biologics manufacturers.  Gore and ViaCyte began exploring a collaboration in 2016 with early encouraging progress leading to this agreement, and it was clear to us that teaming up with ViaCyte provided a synergistic opportunity for both companies.  We look forward to working with ViaCyte to develop novel implantable delivery technologies for cell therapies.”

AMD2

How macular degeneration destroys central vision

Then last week Regenerative Patch Technologies (RPT), which is running a CIRM-funded clinical trial targeting age-related macular degeneration (AMD), announced an investment from Santen Pharmaceutical, a Japanese company specializing in ophthalmology research and treatment.

The investment will help with the development of RPT’s therapy for AMD, a condition that affects millions of people around the world. It’s caused by the deterioration of the macula, the central portion of the retina which is responsible for our ability to focus, read, drive a car and see objects like faces in fine details.

RPE

RPT is using embryonic stem cells to produce the support cells, or RPE cells, needed to replace those lost in AMD. Because these cells exist in a thin sheet in the back of the eye, the company is assembling these sheets in the lab by growing the RPE cells on synthetic scaffolds. These sheets are then surgically implanted into the eye.

In a news release, RPT’s co-founder Dennis Clegg says partnerships like this are essential for small companies like RPT:

“The ability to partner with a global leader in ophthalmology like Santen is very exciting. Such a strong partnership will greatly accelerate RPT’s ability to develop our product safely and effectively.”

These partnerships are not just good news for those involved, they are encouraging for the field as a whole. When big companies like Gore and Santen are willing to invest their own money in a project it suggests growing confidence in the likelihood that this work will be successful, and that it will be profitable.

As the current blockbuster movie ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is proving; with the right partner you can not only make magic, you can also make a lot of money. For potential investors those are both wonderfully attractive qualities. We’re hoping these two new partnerships will help RPT and ViaCyte advance their research. And that these are just the first of many more to come.

Stem Cell Stories That Caught Our Eye: Plasticity in the pancreas and two cool stem cell tools added to the research toolbox

There’s more plasticity in the pancreas than we thought. You’re taught a lot of things about the world when you’re young. As you get older, you realize that not everything you’re told holds true and it’s your own responsibility to determine fact from fiction. This evolution in understanding happens in science too. Scientists do research that leads them to believe that biological processes happen a certain way, only to sometimes find, a few years later, that things are different or not exactly what they had originally thought.

There’s a great example of this in a study published this week in Cell Metabolism about the pancreas. Scientists from UC Davis found that the pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin that helps regulate the levels of sugar in your blood, has more “plasticity” than was originally believed. In this case, plasticity refers to the ability of a tissue or organ to regenerate itself by replacing lost or damaged cells.

The long-standing belief in this field was that the insulin producing cells, called beta cells, are replenished when beta cells actively divide to create more copies of themselves. In patients with type 1 diabetes, these cells are specifically targeted and killed off by the immune system. As a result, the beta cell population is dramatically reduced, and patients have to go on life-long insulin treatment.

UC Davis researchers have identified another type of insulin-producing cell in the islets, which appears to be an immature beta cell shown in red. (UC Davis)

But it turns out there is another cell type in the pancreas that is capable of making beta cells and they look like a teenage, less mature version of beta cells. The UC Davis team identified these cells in mice and in samples of human pancreas tissue. These cells hangout at the edges of structures called islets, which are clusters of beta cells within the pancreas. Upon further inspection, the scientists found that these immature beta cells can secrete insulin but cannot detect blood glucose like mature beta cells. They also found their point of origin: the immature beta cells developed from another type of pancreatic cell called the alpha cell.

Diagram of immature beta cells from Cell Metabolism.

In coverage by EurekAlert, Dr Andrew Rakeman, the director of discovery research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, commented on the importance of this study’s findings and how it could be translated into a new approach for treating type 1 diabetes patients:

“The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years. The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”

 

Say hello to iPSCORE, new and improved tools for stem cell research. Stem cells are powerful tools to model human disease and their power got a significant boost this week from a new study published in Stem Cell Reports, led by scientists at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The team developed a collection of over 200 induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS cell) lines derived from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. They call this stem cell tool kit “iPSCORE”, which stands for iPSC Collection for Omic Research (omics refers to a field of study in biology ending in -omics, such as genomics or proteomics). The goal of iPSCORE is to identify particular genetic variants (unique differences in DNA sequence between people’s genomes) that are associated with specific diseases and to understand why they cause disease at the molecular level.

In an interview with Phys.org, lead scientist on the study, Dr. Kelly Frazer, further explained the power of iPSCORE:

“The iPSCORE collection contains 75 lines from people of non-European ancestry, including East Asian, South Asian, African American, Mexican American, and Multiracial. It includes multigenerational families and monozygotic twins. This collection will enable us to study how genetic variation influences traits, both at a molecular and physiological level, in appropriate human cell types, such as heart muscle cells. It will help researchers investigate not only common but also rare, and even family-specific variations.”

This research is a great example of scientists identifying a limitation in stem cell research and expanding the stem cell tool kit to model diseases in a diverse human population.

A false color scanning electron micrograph of cultured human neuron from induced pluripotent stem cell. Credit: Mark Ellisman and Thomas Deerinck, UC San Diego.

Stem cells that can grow into ANY type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any cell type in the body, earning them the classification of pluripotent. But there is one type of tissue that embryonic stem cells can’t make and it’s called extra-embryonic tissue. This tissue forms the supportive tissue like the placenta that allows an embryo to develop into a healthy baby in the womb.

Stem cells that can develop into both extra-embryonic and embryonic tissue are called totipotent, and they are extremely hard to isolate and study in the lab because scientists lack the methods to maintain them in their totipotent state. Having the ability to study these special stem cells will allow scientists to answer questions about early embryonic development and fertility issues in women.

Reporting this week in the journal Cell, scientists from the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peking University in China identified a cocktail of chemicals that can stabilize human stem cells in a totipotent state where they can give rise to either tissue type. They called these more primitive stem cells extended pluripotent stem cells or EPS cells.

Salk Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Bemonte, co–senior author of the paper, explained the problem their study addressed and the solution it revealed in a Salk news release:

“During embryonic development, both the fertilized egg and its initial cells are considered totipotent, as they can give rise to all embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages. However, the capture of stem cells with such developmental potential in vitro has been a major challenge in stem cell biology. This is the first study reporting the derivation of a stable stem cell type that shows totipotent-like bi-developmental potential towards both embryonic and extra-embryonic lineages.”

Human EPS cells (green) can be detected in both the embryonic part (left) and extra-embryonic parts (placenta and yolk sac, right) of a mouse embryo. (Salk Institute)

Using this new method, the scientists discovered that human EPS stem cells were able to develop chimeric embryos with mouse stem cells more easily than regular embryonic stem cells. First author on the study, Jun Wu, explained why this ability is important:

“The superior chimeric competency of both human and mouse EPS cells is advantageous in applications such as the generation of transgenic animal models and the production of replacement organs. We are now testing to see whether human EPS cells are more efficient in chimeric contribution to pigs, whose organ size and physiology are closer to humans.”

The Salk team reported on advancements in generating interspecies chimeras earlier this year. In one study, they were able to grow rat organs – including the pancreas, heart and eyes – in a mouse. In another study, they grew human tissue in early-stage pig and cattle embryos with the goal of eventually developing ways to generate transplantable organs for humans. You can read more about their research in this Salk news release.

A Win for Diabetes: Scientists Make Functional Pancreatic Cells From Skin

Today is an exciting day for diabetes research and patients. For the first time, scientists have succeeded in making functional pancreatic beta cells from human skin. This new method for making the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas could produce a new, more effective treatment for patients suffering from diabetes.

Researchers at the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California, San Francisco published these promising findings today in the journal Nature Communications.

Making pancreatic cells from skin

They used a technique called direct reprogramming to turn human skin cells directly into pancreatic beta cells without having to go all the way back to a pluripotent stem cell state. The skin cells were treated with factors used to generate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and with pancreatic-specific molecules. This cocktail of factors and molecules shut off the skin genes and turned on genes of the pancreas.

The end product was endoderm progenitor cells, which are like stem cells but can only generate cell types specific to organs derived from the endoderm layer (for example: lungs, thyroid, pancreas). The scientists took these endoderm progenitors and further coaxed them into mature, pancreatic beta cells after treatment with another cocktail of molecules.

Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

Functioning human pancreatic cells after they’ve been transplanted into a mouse. (Image: Saiyong Zhu, Gladstone)

While the pancreatic cells they made looked and acted like the real thing in a dish (they were able to secrete insulin when exposed to glucose), the authors needed to confirm that they functioned properly in animals. They transplanted the mature beta cells into mice that were engineered to have diabetes, and observed that the human beta cells protected the mice from becoming diabetic by properly regulating their blood glucose levels.

Importantly, none of the mice receiving human cells got tumors, which is always a concern when transplanting reprogrammed cells or cells derived from pluripotent stem cells.

What does this mean?

This study is groundbreaking because it offers a new and more efficient method to make functioning human beta cells in mass quantities.

Dr. Sheng Ding, a CIRM funded senior investigator at the Gladstone and co-senior author, explained in a Gladstone news release:

Sheng Ding

Sheng Ding

“This new cellular reprogramming and expansion paradigm is more sustainable and scalable than previous methods. Using this approach, cell production can be massively increased while maintaining quality control at multiple steps. This development ensures much greater regulation in the manufacturing process of new cells. Now we can generate virtually unlimited numbers of patient-matched insulin-producing pancreatic cells.”

 

Matthias Hebrok, director of the Diabetes Center at UCSF and co-senior author on paper discussed the potential research and clinical applications of their findings:

Mattias Hebrok

Matthias Hebrok

“Our results demonstrate for the first time that human adult skin cells can be used to efficiently and rapidly generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similar to human beta cells. This finding opens up the opportunity for the analysis of patient-specific pancreatic beta cell properties and the optimization of cell therapy approaches.”

 

The study does mention the caveat that their direct reprogramming approach wasn’t able to generate all the cell types of the pancreas. Having these support cells would better recreate the pancreatic environment and likely improve the function of the transplanted beta cells.

Lastly, I find this study exciting because it kills two birds with one stone. Scientists can use this technique to make better cellular models of diabetes to understand why the disease happens, and they could also develop new cell replacement therapies in humans. Already, stem cell derived pancreatic beta cells are being tested in human clinical trials for type 1 diabetes (one of them is a CIRM-funded clinical trial by Viacyte) and it seems likely that beta cells derived from skin will follow suit.


Related links:

Stem cell stories that caught our eye: new ways to reprogram, shifting attitudes on tissue donation, and hockey legend’s miracle questioned

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Insulin-producing cells produced from skin. Starting with human skin cells a team at the University of Iowa has created iPS-type stem cells through genetic reprogramming and matured those stem cells into insulin-producing cells that successfully brought blood-sugar levels closer to normal when transplanted in mice.

University of Iowa researchers reprogrammed human skin cells to create iPS cells, which were then differentiated in a stepwise fashion to create insulin-producing cells. When these cells were transplanted into diabetic mice, the cells secreted insulin and reduced the blood sugar levels of the mice to normal or near-normal levels. The image shows the insulin-producing cells (right) and precursor cells (left). [Credit: University of Iowa]

University of Iowa researchers reprogrammed human skin cells to create iPS cells, which were then differentiated in a stepwise fashion to create insulin-producing cells. When these cells were transplanted into diabetic mice, the cells secreted insulin and reduced the blood sugar levels of the mice to normal or near-normal levels. The image shows the insulin-producing cells (right) and precursor cells (left).
[Credit: University of Iowa]

The cells did not completely restore blood-sugar levels to normal, but did point to the possibility of achieving that goal in the future, something the team leader Nicholas Zavazava noted in an article in the Des Moines Register, calling the work an “encouraging first step” toward a potential cure for diabetes.

The Register discussed the possibility of making personalized cells that match the genetics of the patient and avoiding the need for immune suppression. This has long been a goal with iPS cells, but increasingly the research community has turned to looking for options that would avoid immune rejection with donor cells that could be off-the-shelf and less expensive than making new cells for each patient.

Heart cells from reprogramming work in mice. Like several other teams, a group in Japan created beating heart cells from iPS-type stem cells. But they went the additional step of growing them into sheets of heart muscle that when transplanted into mice integrated into the animals own heart and beat to the same rhythm.

The team published the work in Cell Transplantation and the news agency AlianzaNews ran a story noting that it has previously been unclear if these cells would get in sync with the host heart muscle. The result provides hope this could be a route to repair hearts damaged by heart attack.

Patient attitudes on donating tissue. A University of Michigan study suggests most folks don’t care how you use body tissue they donate for research if you ask them about research generically. But their attitudes change when you ask about specific research, with positive responses increasing for only one type of research: stem cell research.

On the generic question, 69 percent said go for it, but when you mentioned the possibility of abortion research more than half said no and if told the cells might lead to commercial products 45 percent said nix. The team published their work in the Journal of the American Medical Association and HealthCanal picked up the university’s press release that quoted the lead researcher, Tom Tomlinson, on why paying attention to donor preference is so critical:

“Biobanks are becoming more and more important to health research, so it’s important to understand these concerns and how transparent these facilities need to be in the research they support.”

CIRM has begun building a bank of iPS-type stem cells made from tissue donated by people with one of 11 diseases. We went through a very detailed process to develop uniform informed consent forms to make sure the donors for our cell bank knew exactly how their cells could be used. Read more about the consent process here.

Mainstream media start to question hockey legend’s miracle. Finally some healthy skepticism has arrived. Hockey legend Gordie Howe’s recovery from a pair of strokes just before the holidays was treated by the general media as a true Christmas miracle. The scientific press tried to layer the coverage with some questions of what we don’t know about his case but not the mainstream media. The one exception I saw was Brad Fikes in the San Diego Union Tribune who had to rely on a couple of scientists who were openly speaking out at the time. We wrote about their concerns then as well.

Now two major outlets have raised questions in long pieces back-to-back yesterday and this morning. The Star in hockey-crazed Canada wrote the first piece and New York Magazine wrote today’s. Both raise serious questions about whether stem cells could have been the cause of Howe’s recovery and are valuable additions to the coverage.