human cells

Fully-functioning pancreatic cells have been created from human skin cells for the first time, according to a new study.

The research, conducted at the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has already been a success: the researchers were able to prevent the development of type 1 diabetes in mouse models.

“Our results demonstrate for the first time that human adult skin cells can be used to efficiently and rapidly generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similar to human beta cells,” said Matthias Hebrok, director of the Diabetes Center at UCSF and a co-senior author of the study. “This finding opens up the opportunity for the analysis of patient-specific pancreatic beta cell properties and the optimisation of cell therapy approaches.”

First of all, the researchers turned skin cells into what are known as endoderm progenitor cells. These are early developmental cells, capable of being engineered into a variety of different cell types. It is similar to a technique that involves stem cells, but this method allows the development of pancreatic cells more quickly.

Next, the researchers developed the endoderm progenitor cells into pancreatic precursor cells, before finally engineering those into fully-functioning beta cells. When these beta cells were transplanted into mouse models, those mice were protected from type 1 diabetes.

“This study represents the first successful creation of human insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells using a direct cellular reprogramming method,” said first author Saiyong Zhu, of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease. “The final step was the most unique – and the most difficult – as molecules had not previously been identified that could take reprogrammed cells the final step to functional pancreatic cells in a dish.”

Sheng Ding, a senior investigator in the Roddenberry Stem Cell Center at Gladstone, and co-senior author on the study, explained: “This new cellular reprogramming and expansion paradigm is more sustainable and scalable than previous methods. Using this approach, cell production can be massively increased while maintaining quality control at multiple steps. This development ensures much greater regulation in the manufacturing process of new cells. Now we can generate virtually unlimited numbers of patient-matched insulin-producing pancreatic cells.”

The findings are published in Nature Communications.