Stem Cells Produce Insulin Cells

HAIFA, Israel, (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have demonstrated that human embryonic stem cells can create insulin producing cells, a result that could signal an important step toward a cure for type 1 diabetes.

"This is an important first step that is necessary but not yet conclusive," Dr. Karl Skorecki, lead researcher and professor of medicine at the institute, told United Press International. "There's enough here to motivate pursuing this research with a lot of vigor." The study will be published in the August issue of Diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes generally results from the destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic cells. Insulin "unlocks" the body's cells, allowing glucose to enter and fuel them. The only cure for the disease is a transplant of the pancreas, but high costs and a shortage of donated organs make transplantation unavailable to most type 1 diabetics. "This new study offers the promise that stem cells might provide a rich source of insulin-producing cells and put us closer to a cure for this serious disease," said Dr. Christopher D. Saudek, president of the American Diabetes Association.

After growing an undifferentiated mass of human embryonic stem cells, the team moved the cells into a chemical environment designed to stimulate differentiated growth. As they divided, the cells grouped into clumps called "embryoid bodies."

The researchers isolated those embryoid bodies secreting insulin into the chemical environment. The ensuing development of large quantities of pancreatic-type, insulin producing cells is the first indication in medical research of the possibility of producing the millions of the specific cells needed for an experimental treatment.

The research that has been done on stem cells indicates embryonic stem cells may be more likely than adult stem cells to differentiate into different types of cells in the body and many researchers say ultimately they may be more useful in developing treatments for disease.

Addressing in practical terms the ethically and politically charged issue of using adult stem cells rather than embryonic stem cells, which require the death of an embryo, the researchers wrote, "The major practical limitation of this approach is the restricted number of cells that can be cultivated from human pancreases. Hence, human embryonic stem cells may represent a reasonable potential alternative."

"We were surprised by the ease with which it was possible to detect insulin-producing cells," Skorecki told UPI. "It wasn't surprising that these stem cells, which had the potential to differentiate into any cell type, would be able to differentiate into pancreatic-type cells.

"But the fact that they did so with such propensity in these lab conditions, and that we could detect them relatively easily, increases the hope that it will be possible to further enrich them and bring them to a stage that might be, in the future, therapeutically useful," he said.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International / Reported by Bruce Sylvester from West Palm Beach, Fla.