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More than 300,000 Canadians live with type 1 diabetes. A chronic and sometimes fatal disease, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that results in the destruction and elimination of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The loss of beta cells ultimately leads to insulin dependence and major complications that are difficult to manage with insulin injections. Recent improvements in islet transplantations for the treatment of type 1 diabetes are increasing the likelihood of finding a possible cure for this disease. However, the requirement for 2-3 donors per transplantation, and the scarcity of donor pancreata, coupled with the requirement for life-long immunosuppression, has led to the search for an alternative source of beta cells for cell therapy. Beta cells produced from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) represent a new and potentially unlimited source of these cells for transplantation for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.
The focus of Dr. Cristina Nostro's lab is to elucidate the signalling pathways governing the formation, expansion and maturation of pancreatic progenitors using human pluripotent stem cell-directed differentiation. Through this in vitro approach, the lab aims to understand the genetic and epigenetic program that dictates pancreatic development and the differentiation and maturation of islet-like cells. Due to the very limited accessibility of the human embryo, this represents a powerful and unparalleled system to understand key human developmental processes. Furthermore, through the use of patient-specific iPSC-directed differentiation, the Nostro lab will be able to study disease development and progression in ways that were previously inconceivable.
In 2017 and 2021, Dr. Nostro published ground-breaking studies in Nature Communications and Cell Stem Cell showing methods to effectively purify populations of pancreatic progenitor cells and improve graft survival and functionality in models of diabetes. As these cells can successfully develop into insulin-producing beta-like cells, these discoveries will enable safer and more efficient testing of these cells across a larger number of laboratories, increasing the odds — and the speed — of changing the way we treat type 1 diabetes.