By switching off a single gene, researchers at Columbia University's Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center successfully converted human gastrointestinal cells into cells that produce insulin.
The research, which was published today in the journal Nature Communications, demonstrated that a drug could retrain cells inside the human GI tract.
"People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn't gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target," said the study's senior author, Domenico Accili, MD, the Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes (in Medicine) at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).
The finding suggests that cells in type 1 diabetes can be more easily replaced through the reeducation of existing cells than through transplants. For almost 20 year medical researchers have been working to create surrogate insulin-producing cells for type 1 diabetes. Insulin producing cells can now be made in the lab from stem cells, but these do not have all the functions as naturally occurring ones. This has prompted scientists to try to transform existing cells into insulin producers.
The research team successfully taught gut cells to make insulin in response to physiological circumstances by deactivating the cells' FOXO1 gene. After seven days some of these cells started releasing insulin as a response to glucose. The team used this approach in a past mouse study in which insulin made by the gut cells was released into the bloodstream; this method nearly normalized blood glucose levels in the diabetic mice.
"By showing that human cells can respond in the same way as mouse cells, we have cleared a main hurdle and can now move forward to try to make this treatment a reality," said Domenico Accili, MD, the Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes (in Medicine) at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).