Embryonic Stem Cells for Treating Diabetes

Dr. Michael German, the clinical director of UC San Francisco's Diabetes Center, as he explores the steps human embryonic stem cells take to become insulin producing pancreatic islet cells, and the goal of clinicians to transplant these cells to treat diabetes
The discovery of methods to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells in 1998 renewed the hopes of doctors, researchers, and diabetes patients and their families that a cure for type 1 diabetes, and perhaps type 2 diabetes as well, may be within striking distance. In theory, embryonic stem cells could be cultivated and coaxed into developing into the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas. With a ready supply of cultured stem cells at hand, the theory is that a line of embryonic stem cells could be grown up as needed for anyone requiring a transplant. The cells could be engineered to avoid immune rejection. Before transplantation, they could be placed into nonimmunogenic material so that they would not be rejected and the patient would avoid the devastating effects of immunosuppressant drugs. There is also some evidence that differentiated cells derived from embryonic stem cells might be less likely to cause immune rejection (see Chapter 10. Assessing Human Stem Cell Safety). Although having a replenishable supply of insulin-producing cells for transplant into humans may be a long way off, researchers have been making remarkable progress in their quest for it. While some researchers have pursued the research on embryonic stem cells, other researchers have focused on insulin-producing precursor cells that occur naturally in adult and fetal tissues.
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Since their discovery three years ago, several teams of researchers have been investigating the possibility that human embryonic stem cells could be developed as a therapy for treating diabetes. Recent studies in mice show that embryonic stem cells can be coaxed into differentiating into insulin-producing beta cells, and new reports indicate that this strategy may be possible using human embryonic cells as well.

Last year, researchers in Spain reported using mouse embryonic stem cells that were engineered to allow researchers to select for cells that were differentiating into insulin-producing cells . Bernat Soria and his colleagues at the Universidad Miguel Hernandez in San Juan, Alicante, Spain, added DNA containing part of the insulin gene to embryonic cells from mice. The insulin gene was linked to another gene that rendered the mice resistant to an antibiotic drug. By growing the cells in the presence of an antibiotic, only those cells that were activating the insulin promoter were able to survive. The cells were cloned and then cultured under varying conditions. Cells cultured in the presence of low concentrations of glucose differentiated and were able to respond to changes in glucose concentration by increasing insulin secretion nearly sevenfold. The researchers then implanted the cells into the spleens of diabetic mice and found that symptoms of diabetes were reversed.


Manfred Ruediger of Cardion, Inc., in Erkrath, Germany, is using the approach developed by Soria and his colleagues to develop insulin-producing human cells derived from embryonic stem cells. By using this method, the non-insulin-producing cells will be killed off and only insulin-producing cells should survive. This is important in ensuring that undifferentiated cells are not implanted that could give rise to tumors. However, some researchers believe that it will be important to engineer systems in which all the components of a functioning pancreatic islet are allowed to develop.

Recently Ron McKay and his colleagues described a series of experiments in which they induced mouse embryonic cells to differentiate into insulin-secreting structures that resembled pancreatic islets . McKay and his colleagues started with embryonic stem cells and let them form embryoid bodies—an aggregate of cells containing all three embryonic germ layers. They then selected a population of cells from the embryoid bodies that expressed the neural marker nestin (see Appendix B. Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells). Using a sophisticated five-stage culturing technique, the researchers were able to induce the cells to form islet-like clusters that resembled those found in native pancreatic islets. The cells responded to normal glucose concentrations by secreting insulin, although insulin amounts were lower than those secreted by normal islet cells (see Figure 7.2. Development of Insulin-Secreting Pancreatic-Like Cells From Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells). When the cells were injected into diabetic mice, they survived, although they did not reverse the symptoms of diabetes.


According to McKay, this system is unique in that the embryonic cells form a functioning pancreatic islet, complete with all the major cell types. The cells assemble into islet-like structures that contain another layer, which contains neurons and is similar to intact islets from the pancreas . Several research groups are trying to apply McKay's results with mice to induce human embryonic stem cells to differentiate into insulin-producing islets.

Recent research has also provided more evidence that human embryonic cells can develop into cells that can and do produce insulin. Last year, Melton, Nissim Benvinisty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Josef Itskovitz-Eldor of the Technion in Haifa, Israel, reported that human embryonic stem cells could be manipulated in culture to express the PDX-1 gene, a gene that controls insulin transcription . In these experiments, researchers cultured human embryonic stem cells and allowed them to spontaneously form embryoid bodies (clumps of embryonic stem cells composed of many types of cells from all three germ layers). The embryoid bodies were then treated with various growth factors, including nerve growth factor. The researchers found that both untreated embryoid bodies and those treated with nerve growth factor expressed PDX-1. Embryonic stem cells prior to formation of the aggregated embryoid bodies did not express PDX-1. Because expression of the PDX-1 gene is associated with the formation of beta islet cells, these results suggest that beta islet cells may be one of the cell types that spontaneously differentiate in the embryoid bodies. The researchers now think that nerve growth factor may be one of the key signals for inducing the differentiation of beta islet cells and can be exploited to direct differentiation in the laboratory. Complementing these findings is work done by Jon Odorico of the University of Wisconsin in Madison using human embryonic cells of the same source. In preliminary findings, he has shown that human embryonic stem cells can differentiate and express the insulin gene .

More recently, Itskovitz-Eldor and his Technion colleagues further characterized insulin-producing cells in embryoid bodies . The researchers found that embryonic stem cells that were allowed to spontaneously form embryoid bodies contained a significant percentage of cells that express insulin. Based on the binding of antibodies to the insulin protein, Itskovitz-Eldor estimates that 1 to 3 percent of the cells in embryoid bodies are insulin-producing beta-islet cells. The researchers also found that cells in the embryoid bodies express glut-2 and islet-specific glucokinase, genes important for beta cell function and insulin secretion. Although the researchers did not measure a time-dependent response to glucose, they did find that cells cultured in the presence of glucose secrete insulin into the culture medium. The researchers concluded that embryoid bodies contain a subset of cells that appear to function as beta cells and that the refining of culture conditions may soon yield a viable method for inducing the differentiation of beta cells and, possibly, pancreatic islets.

Taken together, these results indicate that the development of a human embryonic stem cell system that can be coaxed into differentiating into functioning insulin-producing islets may soon be possible.
Future Directions

Ultimately, type 1 diabetes may prove to be especially difficult to cure, because the cells are destroyed when the body's own immune system attacks and destroys them. This autoimmunity must be overcome if researchers hope to use transplanted cells to replace the damaged ones. Many researchers believe that at least initially, immunosuppressive therapy similar to that used in the Edmonton protocol will be beneficial. A potential advantage of embryonic cells is that, in theory, they could be engineered to express the appropriate genes that would allow them to escape or reduce detection by the immune system. Others have suggested that a technology should be developed to encapsulate or embed islet cells derived from islet stem or progenitor cells in a material that would allow small molecules such as insulin to pass through freely, but would not allow interactions between the islet cells and cells of the immune system. Such encapsulated cells could secrete insulin into the blood stream, but remain inaccessible to the immune system.

Before any cell-based therapy to treat diabetes makes it to the clinic, many safety issues must be addressed (see Chapter 10. Assessing Human Stem Cell Safety). A major consideration is whether any precursor or stem-like cells transplanted into the body might revert to a more pluripotent state and induce the formation of tumors. These risks would seemingly be lessened if fully differentiated cells are used in transplantation.

But before any kind of human islet-precursor cells can be used therapeutically, a renewable source of human stem cells must be developed. Although many progenitor cells have been identified in adult tissue, few of these cells can be cultured for multiple generations. Embryonic stem cells show the greatest promise for generating cell lines that will be free of contaminants and that can self renew. However, most researchers agree that until a therapeutically useful source of human islet cells is developed, all avenues of research should be exhaustively investigated, including both adult and embryonic sources of tissue.

Page citation: 7. Stem Cells and Diabetes . In Stem Cell Information [World Wide Web site]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006 [cited Monday, December 15, 2008] Available at <http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/scireport/chapter7>

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