Stem cells, found in both embryos and adults, have the unique capacity to develop into any cell type, including the insulin secreting beta cells that are missing in people with type 1 diabetes.
The Diabetes Transplant Unit (DTU) (www.diabetes.unsw.edu.au) is one of the many research groups around the world developing multiple approaches to turn adult and embryonic stem cells into beta cells using cell culture and genetic tools.
Already the DTU has been successful in directing mouse embryonic stem cells into beta cells. It is now turning its attention to human embryonic stem cells, and is the first unit in New South Wales to grow such cells.
Turning ADULT stem cells into beta cells is another promising area of stem cell research. DTU researchers are using molecular tools to coax cells in the bone marrow, liver and pancreas to become beta cells. They are also testing whether these beta cells are protected from the self-destructive process that causes diabetes.
Scientists at the National Stem Cell Centre have also been at the forefront using stem cells to reverse juvenile diabetes using both adult and embryonic stem cells. In 2003, the NSCC was established and now incorporates research from over eight institutions around Australia with major funds coming from the federal government and other sources.
A big leap in research was taken in April 2004, when the first license to create human embyronic stem cell lines was approved in Australia. This should allow stem cell research to move ahead at a more rapid pace. If you want to know more about human embryonic stem cell lines and where they come, take a look at the picture.
Therapeutic Cloning is an approach using stem cells which has huge potential. For now it is not being researched in Australia as it is thought to be too similar to human cloning, which of course is banned in Australia and worldwide. Therapeutic cloning is currently under a 3 year moratorium in Australia ending 2005, when it is up for review. To find out exactly what it is take a look yourself.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to grow into any cell type in your body, be it heart, muscle or insulin producing beta cells. This is how it is may be done by medical researchers today:
An embryo forms when an egg meets a sperm and the egg is fertilised. This happens naturally or in a laboratory dish through IVF procedures. This embryo divides to form 2, 4 and eight cells and continues to divide for up to five days until a blastocyst is formed. The blastocyst has an inner cell mass that later becomes the fetus, and outer cell mass that becomes the placenta. The blastocyst’s inner cell mass is removed and grown in a petri dish in the laboratory. When tiny amounts of special growth factors are sprinkled onto these stem cells, it allows them to turn into specific cell types, such as a B cells, heart cells, muscle cells and many more. These new beta cells can be used to people with Type I diabetes that are missing beta cells.
Therapeutic cloning is another way to produce insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells. For now, this approach is not used but this is how it could works.
Take any somatic cell, such as a skin cell, from the donor, who would be the patient with diabetes. Put the DNA from this skin cell into an egg that has been previously emptied of its DNA. The introduced skin cell DNA must then be allowed to fuse with egg and together, develop into an embryo. The embryo is then tinkered with so it develops into beta cells and these can then be used to treat the patient with Type I diabetes. Since these beta cells would have the same DNA as the patient, there is no risk of their rejection