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Dr. Cristina Nostro in lab
“We have identified a new strategy for promoting beta cell production,” Dr. Cristina Nostro, scientist, McEwen Stem Cell Institute, says of the research from UHN and The Hospital for Sick Children. “This insight could help beta cell transplantation move one step closer to the clinic.” (Photo: Courtesy Andrew Down Photography)

A new study from UHN and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) reveals a strategy to promote the production of insulin-producing cells – known as beta cells – in the lab. These cells could represent a new therapeutic approach with the potential to treat some types of diabetes.

Pancreatic beta cells help control the amount of sugar in our blood. They achieve this by sensing blood sugar and producing insulin to reduce blood sugar when it gets too high. In some types of diabetes, beta cells produce little to no insulin leading to sustained high blood sugar which can damage blood vessels, organs and nerves.

A novel treatment approach for diabetes that is in development involves the production of beta cells in the lab. These cells would then be transplanted into patients to help regulate their blood sugar and control their diabetes. 

Human stem cells, which are capable of producing different types of cells in the body, are the starting point for producing these beta cells. Researchers can coax the stem cells into generating beta cells by turning on or off the activity of a select set of genes and proteins. 

In their most recent publication, Dr. Cristina Nostro, a scientist at UHN's McEwen Stem Cell Institute, and her colleague, Dr. Tae-Hee Kim at SickKids, discovered that supportive tissues surrounding the developing pancreas and gut produce organ-specific signals required for proper development. The researchers then showed that these signals can be modulated in the petri dish to improve the stem cells' ability to produce pancreatic beta cells.

"We have identified a new strategy for promoting beta cell production," says Dr. Nostro. "This insight could help beta cell transplantation move one step closer to the clinic.

"In addition, our findings emphasize the importance of environmental cues in the development of different types of cells from stem cells."

This work was supported by the SickKids Foundation, the Cancer Research Society, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the government of Ontario, and the Toronto General and Western Hospital Foundation. M Wilson holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Comparative Genomics.

Read more about the research.

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