Colin Plumb

Biomedical research is of paramount importance as it fuels scientific progress and pushes the boundaries of knowledge in understanding human health and disease. It offers opportunities to make groundbreaking discoveries, develop innovative treatments, and ultimately improve the lives of individuals and communities worldwide. In this third article in a series of posts focusing on communicating complexity with clarity, Senior Medical Writer Colin Plumb outlines his research into islet transplantation as a potential treatment option for diabetes and the methods to generate pancreas stem cells which could contribute to improved islet cell production.

Stem cell research in diabetes treatment

Diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body is no longer able to control glucose levels in the blood. Normally, the pancreas plays a crucial role in regulating glucose by releasing insulin, a hormone produced by specialised β-cells in areas of the pancreas known as ‘islets’. Insulin acts as a chemical messenger to the rest of the body, instructing cells in the liver, fat, and muscle to absorb excess glucose in the blood, which can then be stored or used for energy. Having persistently high blood glucose levels can lead to various complications and on average, people diagnosed with diabetes tend to lead shorter lives than people without the condition.

Current treatments for diabetes primarily involve insulin injections for Type 1 diabetics, and medication for Type 2 diabetics designed to increase the amount and effectiveness of insulin released by the pancreas. However, there is an underutilised treatment option called islet transplant. This approach is an example of a ‘cell therapy’, where islets containing β-cells are taken from a donor pancreas and injected into a diabetic recipient. Once transplanted, β-cells can detect glucose and release insulin, as they do in a healthy pancreas. Islet transplants can be effective in improving the quality of life for severe Type 1 diabetics, and may even allow them to stop taking insulin injections altogether. The main barrier to making islet transplants more widely available is the shortage of donor organs.

To overcome the reliance on deceased donor pancreases, scientists have been researching ways of generating insulin-producing β-cells in the lab. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are considered an ideal alternative source of islet cells since they are capable of generating every cell type of the body. However, researchers need to provide specific signals to guide hESCs into producing pancreas stem cells, and subsequently to become β-cells. Although considerable progress has been made in identifying the correct cues for efficient pancreas stem cell production, generating insulin-producing β-cells remains inefficient.

To understand how to better induce the switch from pancreas stem cell to islet cell, it would be beneficial for researchers to have a consistent, unlimited supply of pancreas stem cells to study, without the need to generate them from hESCs every time. However, a readily available, high quality supply of pancreas stem cells is currently lacking. In this thesis, we presented simple methods for isolating and culturing large quantities of pancreas stem cells from developing mouse and human foetal pancreas, as well as a hESC tool we have generated. These cellular models should provide a consistent source of cells for future researchers working to improve islet cell production in the lab. Ultimately, these advancements may pave the way for the use of such cells in the treatment of diabetes.