Mini-stomachs grown in a lab could one day supply insulin to people with diabetes.
Loss of insulin-producing beta cells is a hallmark of diabetes. Tissues in the lower stomach regenerate often via local stem cells and regularly employ many of the same genes found in pancreatic beta cells. By flipping on three key genes in cells from the lower stomach, scientists may have engineered a viable replacement for those beta cells. In experiments with genetically engineered mice that lacked beta cells, reprogrammed stomach cells pumped out insulin and glucose at normal levels in the blood.
To turn this into something that could one day be a viable therapy for people, the team took stomach stem cells from diabetic mice, engineered them with the same genes and grew mini-organs. Then, they implanted the mini-stomachs back into the mice. Five out of 22 mice maintained normal glucose levels, and, sure enough, their implants contained lots of cells that churn out insulin. That fraction might seem low, but it shows that the technique could be used as a model for therapies that replace beta cells in people, the researchers suggest February 18 in Cell Stem Cell.