Insulin-Secreting Beta Cells from Human Fat


In a study led by Martin Fussenegger of ETH Zurich, stem cells extracted from the fat of a 50-year-old test subject were transformed into mature, insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells.

Fussenegger and his colleagues isolated stem cells from the fat of a 50-year-old man and used these cells to make induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These iPSCs were then differentiated into pancreatic progenitor cells and then into insulin-secreting beta cells but means of a “genetic software” approach.

Genetic software refers to the complex synthetic network of genes required to differentiate pancreatic progenitor cells into insulin-secreting beta cells. In particular, three genes, all of which expression transcription factors, Ngn3, Pdx1, and MafA, are particularly crucial for beta cell differentiation.

Fussenegger and his team designed a a protocol that would express within these fat-based stem cells the precise concentration and combination of these transcription factors. This feature is quite important because the concentration of these factors changes during the differentiation process. For example, MafA is not present at the start of beta cells maturation, but appears on day four on the final data of maturation when its concentration rises precipitously. The concentration of Ngn3 rises and then falls and the levels of Pdx1 rise at the beginning and towards the end of maturation.

The Zurich team used ingenious genetic tools to reproduce these vicissitudes of gene expression as precisely as possible. By doing so, they were able to differentiate the iPSC-derived pancreatic progenitor cells into insulin-secreting beta cells.

This work was published in Nature Communications 7, doi:10.1038/ncomms11247.

The fact that Fussenegger’s team was able to use a synthetic gene network to form mature beta cells from adult stem cells is a genuine breakthrough. The genetic network approach also seems to work better than the traditional technique of adding various chemicals and growth factors to cultures cells. “It’s not only really hard to add just the right quantities of these components (growth factors) at just the right time, it’s also inefficient and impossible to scale up,” said Fussenegger.

This new process can successfully transform three out of four fat stem cells into beta cells. Also the beta cells made with this method have the same microscopic appearance of natural beta cells in that they contain internal granules full of insulin. They also secrete insulin in response to increased blood glucose concentrations. Unfortunately the amount of insulin made by these cells is lower than that made by natural beta cells.

Pancreatic islet transplants have been performed in diabetic patients, but such transplantations also require treatment with potent antirejection drugs that have potent side effects.

“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action (administering antitransplantation drugs), since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient’s own body. This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes,” said Fussenegger.

Fussenegger and his group have made these beta cells in the laboratory, but they have yet to transplant them into a diabetic patient. However, the success of this synthetic genetic software technology might also be useful in the reprogramming of adult cells into other types of cells that are useful for therapeutic purposes.

Rebooting Pancreatic Cells Can Normalize Blood Sugar Levels in Diabetic Mice


Type 1 diabetes results from the inability of the endocrine portion of the pancreas to secrete sufficient quantities of the hormone insulin. The cells that make insulin, beta cells, have been destroyed. Consequently, type 1 diabetics must inject themselves with insulin routinely in order to stay alive. Is there a better way?

A new strategy suggests that maybe pancreatic cells can be “rebooted” to produce insulin and that sure reprogramming could potentially help people with type 1 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels without the need for daily injections. This therapeutic approach is simpler and potentially safer than giving people stem cells that have been differentiated into pancreatic beta cells.

Philippe Lysy at the Cliniques Universitaires Saint Luc, which is part of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and his colleagues have reprogrammed pancreatic duct cells extracted from dead donors who were not diabetic at the time of death. The duct cells do not produce insulin, but they have a natural tendency to grow and differentiate into specific types of cells.

Lysy and his team grew the cells in the laboratory and encouraged them to become insulin-producing cells by exposing them to fatty particles. These fatty particles are absorbed into the cells after which they induce the synthesis of the MAFA transcription factor. MAFA acts as a genetic “switch” that binds to DNA and activates insulin production.

Implantation of these altered cells into diabetic mice showed that the cells were able to secrete insulin in a way that controls blood sugar levels. “The results are encouraging,” says Lysy.

Lysy’s colleague, Elisa Corritore, reported these results at this week’s annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology in Barcelona, Spain. Lysy and others are preparing to submit their results for publication.

This work, if it continues to pan out, might lead to the harvesting of pancreatic ducts from deceased donors and converted in bulk into insulin-making cells. Such “off-the-shelf” cells could then be transplanted into people with type 1 diabetes to compensate for their inability to make their own insulin.

“We would hope to put the cells in a device under the skin that isolates them from the body’s immune system, so they’re not rejected as foreign,” says Lysy. He says devices like this are already being tested for their ability to house insulin-producing cells derived from stem cells.

Previous attempts to get round this problem have included embedding insulin-producing cells in a seaweed derivative prior to transplantation in order to keep them from being destroyed by the recipient’s immune system.

Lysy thinks that since insulin-producing cells originate from pancreatic tissue, they have an inherently lower risk of becoming cancerous after the transplant. This has always been a worry associated with tissues produced from embryonic stem cells, since these have the capability to form tumors if any are left in their original state in the transplanted tissue.

The basic premise of the work looks solid, says Juan Dominguez-Bendala, director of stem cell development for Translational Research at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Diabetes Research Institute in Florida. “However, until a peer-reviewed manuscript is published and all the details of the work become available to the scientific community, it is difficult to judge if this advance represents a meaningful leap in the state of the art.”

Lysy expects it will take between three and five years before the technique is ready to be tested in human clinical trials.

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.