In a discovery that’s being hailed as a leap forward in regenerative medicine, researchers have found a way to transform common pancreatic cells in an adult mouse into the rare, insulin-producing beta cells that are destroyed in type 1 diabetes. Previously, researchers believed that the only way to transmute an adult cell was to first coax it back into stem cell form and then to reprogram it; this new research removes the first step entirely.
The accomplishment raises the tantalizing prospect that patients suffering from not only diabetes but also heart disease, strokes and many other ailments could eventually have some of their cells reprogrammed to cure their afflictions without the need for drugs, transplants or other therapies. “It’s kind of an extreme makeover of a cell,” said [lead researcher] Douglas A. Melton…. “The goal is to create cells that are missing or defective in people. It’s very exciting” [Washington Post].
In the study, published in the journal Nature [subscription required], researchers first went prospecting for genes that could achieve the metamorphosis. Melton and colleagues systematically identified which genes were likely to trigger the switch by sorting through more than 1,000 genes that appeared to be involved in the development of the insulin-producing cells. They found that by injecting viruses carrying three genes into mice, they flipped a switch in the pancreas, turning cobblestone-shaped pancreatic cells into smaller, spindle-shaped beta cells that produce insulin [Boston Globe].
Researchers stress that they haven’t tested the process in humans, and say that any clinical applications are years away. But the study will have a larger impact by illuminating an entirely different pathway for regenerative medicine research, one which dodges the many difficulties of stem cells. “This represents a parallel approach for how to make cells in regenerative medicine,” said Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “And now that it’s shown that you can turn one of your cells into another, it makes you think of what other cells you’d like to convert” [Wired News].