Biologists at Harvard say they’ve transformed one type of fully developed adult cell into another type. They transformed adult pancreas cells into insulin producing cells in mice. Could this be a potential cure for type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes? And, could this be the death knell for embryonic stem cell research?
On its front page, the Washington Post reports that in a study published online in the journal Nature, Douglas A. Melton, Ph.D., of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and colleagues, used a process called “direct reprogramming” to transform ordinary pancreas cells into cells that produce insulin.
The paper called this “a startling advance that could lead to cures for a variety of illnesses, and sidestep the political and ethical quagmires associated with embryonic stem cell research.”
I could not agree more. This is an amazing announcement.
Mice experiments allowed the researchers to pinpoint “three crucial molecular switches that, when flipped, completely” reprogrammed the cells. This finding raises “the prospect that patients suffering from not only d iabetes, but also heart disease, strokes, and many other ailments, could eventually have some of their cells reprogrammed to cure their afflictions without the need for drugs, transplants, or other therapies.”
For the study, the researchers “identified nine key genes that are active in mature beta cells and their close relatives,” the Los Angeles Times adds. “Then, they started turning them on and off in every possible combination to determine which were necessary to make insulin-producing cells. They ultimately determined that only three were essential to the process, and they were activated by the proteins Ngn3, Pdx1, and Mafa.”
Next, the authors “infected the pancreases of dozens of two-month-old mice with a virus that contained three genes active in insulin-producing beta cells,” USA Today notes. “More than 20 percent of the infected pancreas cells turned into beta cells, a rate hundreds of times better than past attempts to turn embryonic stem cells into such specialized tissues.”
The transformed “cells made the beta cell switch in only three days,” because they did not first divide “into less-specialized embryo-like tissues, which take weeks to develop into specific organ tissues.”
The New York Times explains that “besides producing insulin, the transformed exocrine cells looked like beta cells, and ceased making proteins typical of exocrine cells.” But, the reprogrammed cells “did not organize themselves into the pancreatic structures, known as islets, where beta cells usually cluster.”
According to the researchers, the cells also “didn’t fully replenish the insulin supply, but maybe there were too few of them, or they were hampered by not forming clusters like ordinary beta cells do,” the AP points out.
The UPI quotes Melton as saying, “We’re intrigued by the possibility that this approach, which has worked for pancreatic insulin-producing cells, could be more widely applied to many kind of cells, especially those that are lost in disease, or following injury.”
Even though the authors cautioned that “the approach is not ready for people, and that more research is needed in this field,” AHN noted, this is indeed an amazing medical breakthrough.