Directly Reprogramming Gut Cells into Beta Cells to Treat Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes mellitus results from destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Diabetics have to give themselves routine shots of insulin. The hope that stem cells offer is the production of cells that can replace the lost beta cells. “We are looking for ways to make new beta cells for these patients to one day replace daily insulin injections,” says Ben Stanger, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some diabetics have had beta cells from cadavers transplanted into their bodies to replace the missing beta cells. Such a procedure shows that replacement therapy is, in principle possible. Therefore, transplanting islet cells to restore normal blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics could treat and even cure disease. Unfortunately, transplantable islet cells are in short supply, and stem cell-based approaches have a long way to go before they reach the clinic. However, Stanger and his colleagues have tried a different strategy for treating type 1 diabetes. “It’s a powerful idea that if you have the right combination of transcription factors you can make any cell into any other cell. It’s cellular alchemy,” comments Stanger.

New research from Stanger and a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, Yi-Ju Chen that was published in Cell Reports, describes the production of new insulin-making cells in the gut of laboratory animals by introducing three new transcription factors. This experiment raises the prospect of using directly reprogrammed adult cells as a source for new beta cells.

In 2008, Stanger and others in Doug Melton’s laboratory used three beta-cell reprogramming factors (Pdx1, MafA, and Ngn3, collectively called PMN) to convert pancreatic acinar cells (the cells in the pancreas that secrete enzymes rather than hormones) into cells that had many of the features of pancreatic beta cells.

Following this report, the Stanger and his team set out to determine if other cells types could be directly reprogrammed into beta cells. “We expressed PMN in a wide spectrum of tissues in one-to-two-month-old mice,” says Stanger. “Three days later the mice died of hypoglycemia.” It was clear that Stanger and his crew were on to something. Further work showed that some of the mouse cells were making way too much extra insulin and that killed the mice.

When the dead mice were autopsied, “we saw transient expression of the three factors in crypt cells of the intestine near the pancreas,” explained Stanger.

They dubbed these beta-like, transformed cells “neoislet” cells. These neoislet cells express insulin and show outward structural features akin to beta cells. These neoislets also respond to glucose and release insulin when exposed to glucose. The cells were also able to improve hyperglycemia in diabetic mice.

Stanger and his co-workers also figured out how to turn on the expression of PMN in only the intestinal crypt cells to prevent the deadly whole-body hypoglycemia side effect that first killed the mice.

In culture, the expression of PMN in human intestinal ‘‘organoids,’ which are miniature intestinal units grown in culture, also converted intestinal epithelial cells into beta-like cells.

“Our results demonstrate that the intestine could be an accessible and abundant source of functional insulin-producing cells,” says Stanger. “Our ultimate goal is to obtain epithelial cells from diabetes patients who have had endoscopies, expand these cells, add PMN to them to make beta-like cells, and then give them back to the patient as an alternate therapy. There is a long way to go for this to be possible, including improving the functional properties of the cells, so that they more closely resemble beta cells, and figuring out alternate ways of converting intestinal cells to beta-like cells without gene therapy.”

This is hopefully a grand start to what might be a cure for type 1 diabetes.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).

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