Producing insulin-secreting pancreas cells from skin cells gives hope to diabetics


February 6, 2014

Replenishing the insulin-secreting beta cells found in the pancreas could lead to a more permanent treatment for diabetes (Image: Shutterstock)

Replenishing the insulin-secreting beta cells found in the pancreas could lead to a more permanent treatment for diabetes (Image: Shutterstock)

Type 1 diabetics suffer from a lack of beta cells in the pancreas, which are responsible for insulin production. Although glucose monitoring and insulin injections allows the disease to be managed, finding a way to replenish these beta cells would offer a more permanent solution. Scientists at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have provided hope for just such a treatment by developing a technique to reprogram skin cells into insulin-producing beta cells.

Because of their limited regenerative ability, researchers have had a hard time generating large quantities of beta cells. But now, thanks to stem cell technology, researchers in the lab of Gladstone Institutes' Investigator Sheng Ding, MD, PhD, have managed to transform skin cells into insulin-secreting beta cells.

The team started with skin cells responsible for the structural framework of animal tissues known as fibroblasts, which were collected from laboratory mice. By treating them with a cocktail of molecules and reprogramming factors, the fibroblasts were transformed into cells resembling endoderm cells, which are cells found in very early embryos that eventually mature into the body's major organs, including the pancreas.

"Using another chemical cocktail, we then transformed these endoderm-like cells into cells that mimicked early pancreas-like cells, which we called PPLC’s," said Gladstone Postdoctoral Scholar Ke Li, PhD. "Our initial goal was to see whether we could coax these PPLC’s to mature into cells that, like beta cells, respond to the correct chemical signals and – most importantly – secrete insulin. And our initial experiments, performed in a petri dish, revealed that they did."

When the researchers then transplanted PPLC's into mice that had been modified to have hyperglycemia, which is a key indicator of diabetes, the same thing happened, and one week after the transplant, the animal's glucose levels started to drop and gradually approach normal levels. When the transplanted cells were removed, the researchers saw an immediate spike in glucose levels.

Even more promising, when the team tested the mice eight weeks after the transplantation of the cells, they saw that the PPLC's had led to the rise of functional, insulin-secreting beta cells.

"I am particularly excited about the prospect of translating these findings to the human system," said Matthias Hebrok, PhD, who is one of the study’s authors and director of the UCSF Diabetes Center. "Most immediately, this technology in human cells could significantly advance our understanding of how inherent defects in beta cells result in diabetes, bringing us notably closer to a much-needed cure."

The team's study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Source: Gladstone Institutes

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

I think this is great news for Diabetics. I know of type 1's who would find it great to not have to inject themselves with insulin.


Thanks for the article, Darren. Here's news from the trenches. I'm a longtime Type 1 diabetic who has seen a forty-year parade of promising technologies make their appearance onstage, shine brightly for a short time, and then fade into the obscurity of Great Ideas that Did Not Work. The story about skin cell transmutation is, to me, interesting but by no means convincing. The system for maintaining correct blood-sugar levels is so complex in itself, and must perforce interact with the even more complex autoimmune system, that early results like this are little more than infotainment. When human trials begin, it might be time to get excited.

Mac McDougal

One more news that will disapear from pharmaceutical power... There is no point in curing diabetes ...much money envolved.

Fábio Borges

I do worry sometimes about,at what cost do we provide a cure,build a house the maintains a steady temp year round, build a ultra efficient aerodynamic high milage and or range commuter vehicle.It seems as if ,the whole of this country is about us be held hostage to energy,medical costs.What if tomorrow we came across a simple,cheap and readily available treatment for cancer,diabetes,etc your talking about a multi billion dollar machine.I hate to think this way,but I often wonder about a board meeting at Blah Blah industries,just one company,out of thousands that is involved in the treatment and care of patients,the CEO's opening line, "with this cure ,we look to lose 10 billion dollars over the next five years'.Think about it.

Thomas Lewis

Living Cell Technologies is a Bio tech company which has had very promising trials and results using xenotransplantation for the release of insulin in response to glucose levels. If your interested in seeing their research go to

King Taurus

Those guys can sign me up for human trials right away. I'm sold.

João Oliveira
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