By switching off a single gene, Columbia Medical Center scientists have converted cells from the digestive tract into insulin-secreting cells. This suggests that drug treatments might be able to convert gut cells into insulin-secreting cells.
Senior author Domenico Accili said this of this work: “People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn’t gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target.”
Accili’s work suggests that lost pancreatic beta cells might be replaced by retraining existing cells rather than transplanting new insulin-secreting cells. For nearly two decades, scientists have been trying to differentiate a wide variety of stem cells into pancreatic beta cells to treat type 1 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the patient’s insulin-producing beta cells are destroyed, usually by the patient’s own immune system. The patient becomes dependent on insulin shots in order to survive.
Without insulin, cells have no signal to take up sugar and metabolize it. Also muscles and the liver do not take up amino acids and make protein, and the body tends to waste away, ravaged by high blood sugar levels that progressively and relentlessly damage it without the means to repair this damage.
Insulin-producing beta cells can be made in the lab from several different types of stem cells, but the resulting beta cells often do not possess all the properties of naturally occurring beta cells.
This led Accili and others to attempt to transform existing cells into insulin-secreting beta cells. In previous work, Accili and others demonstrated that mouse intestinal cells could be converted into insulin-secreting cells (see Talchai C, et al., Nat Genet. 2012 44(4):406-12), This recent paper demonstrates that a similar technique also works in human intestinal cells.
The gene of interest, FOXO1, is indeed present in human gut endocrine progenitor and serotonin-producing cells. In order to determine in FOXO1 inhibition could induce the formation of insulin-secreting cells, Accili and others used human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and small “gut organoids,” which are small balls of gut tissue that grow in culture.
Inhibition of FOXO1 by either introducing a mutant version of the gene that encoded a protein that soaked up all the wild-type protein or by using viruses that forced the expression of a small RNA that prevented the expression of the FOXO1 gene caused loss of FOXO1 activity. FOXO1 inhibition promoted the generation of insulin-positive cells within the gut organoids that express all the genes and proteins normally found in mature pancreatic β-cells. These transdifferentiated cells also released “C-peptide,” which is a byproduct of insulin production, in response to drugs that drive insulin secretion (insulin secretagogues). Furthermore, these cultured insulin-secreting cells and survive when transplanted into mice where they continue to secrete insulin in response to increased blood sugar concentrations.
The findings of Accili and his colleagues provide some evidence that gut-targeted FOXO1 inhibition or transplantation of cultured gut organoids made from iPSCs could serve as a source of insulin-producing cells to treat human diabetes.
This is a remarkable piece of research, but there is one thing that troubles me about it. If the patient’s immune system has been sensitized to beta cells, making new beta cells will simply give the immune system something else to attack. It seems to me that retraining to immune system needs to be done first before replacement of the beta cells can ever hope to succeed.