A new technique to convert human stem cells into insulin-producing cells could hold huge promise for future diabetic treatments, if results seen in an experiment with mice can be successfully replicated in humans.

In a study, researchers figured out a new way to coax human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) into pancreatic beta cells that make insulin. When these insulin-producing cells were transplanted into mice induced to have an acute form of diabetes, their condition was rapidly cured.

"These mice had very severe diabetes with blood sugar readings of more than 500 milligrams per decilitre of blood – levels that could be fatal for a person," explains biomedical engineer Jeffrey R. Millman from Washington University.

"When we gave the mice the insulin-secreting cells, within two weeks their blood glucose levels had returned to normal and stayed that way for many months."

Pluripotent stem cells are essentially blank, undifferentiated cells with the ability to grow into other kinds of cells that exist all throughout the body. Harnessing that potential, in the diabetic context, means researchers could devise ways of tweaking stem cells to become the insulin-producing cells that diabetics lack, helping them to control high blood sugar and stay healthy.

Scientists have been investigating how to do this for years, reporting a number of incremental successes in animal models as our understanding of the processes behind stem cell manipulation increases.

Millman's lab has been busy too. In 2016, they devised a way to produce insulin-secreting cells – derived from patients with type 1 diabetes – that functioned in response to glucose. A few years later, they learned how to augment the level of insulin secretion in stem-cell-derived pancreatic beta cells.

In the new work, they've tackled another challenge: reducing the amount of 'off target' cells produced in these processes, when blank cells differentiate into other kinds of unintended cells.
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