A Potential Cure For Type 1 Diabetes?

There was a short but interesting article in the New York Times today entitled “Researchers Report Advances in Cell Conversion Technique,” written by Nicholas Wade (NYT Thursday Aug 28, 2008, page A16). The article summarized a scientific report published today in the journal Nature. Basically, scientists at Harvard University have taken a new tack on finding a cure for type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a condition caused by destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas which are called beta cells. In most instances, destruction of the beta cells is caused by an aut0immune process, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the beta cells.

Maybe stem cells aren’t needed after all?

The researchers used a technique called cell conversion in which they “captured” master proteins called transcription factors which had been previously shown capable of causing adult cells to revert to their embryonic state. So, the researchers first identified the transcription factors critical for insulin production in beta cells. Then they introduced them into a virus known to infect non-beta pancreas cells (those cells that produce digestive enzymes). Next they made mice diabetic by giving them a drug that destroyed their beta cells. Finally they infected the mice with the virus. Bingo- the infected pancreas cells were transformed into non-beta pancreas cells that produced gobs and gobs of insulin. Apparently the transformed cells not only produced insulin, but they looked like beta cells and stopped making the digestive enzymes which had been their raison d’etre. Pretty exciting stuff.

Is there a catch?

These findings are very interesting and potentially could lead to a cure for type 1 diabetes. We shouldn’t get overly excited just yet because there are some important unanswered questions. We already know how to harvest human beta cells that will produce insulin when transplanted into humans. The problem is that the transplanted cells get destroyed fairly quickly by the same autoimmune process that caused the person’s diabetes in the first place. Taking immune suppression drugs helps some but that approach has its own problems. Anyway, it will be very interesting to see how this work progresses and maybe, just maybe, the transformed cells will not be so attractive to the body’s immune system.

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