Diabetes, affecting 537 million people globally and the number being projected to rise to 783 million by 2045, demands innovative solutions.
The discovery of insulin and its therapeutic application to treat diabetic patients a century ago this year represented a huge leap forward. However, current treatments, including insulin injections and the transplantation of insulin-producing cells from a donor pancreas (called islet transplantations), face limitations.
The advent of stem cell therapy, however, has the potential to change this. Research across the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine, reNEW, is exploring many different avenues to use stem cells as a platform for better understanding diabetes and exploring new therapeutic options.
Pioneering research has generated insulin-secreting cells from stem cells, yet challenges persist in replicating native beta-cell function. The insulin+ cells produced in a dish still cannot fully replicate native beta-cells functionally, nor can we produce intact islets of Langerhans with their additional endocrine cells besides the beta-cells. For this reason, there is still much to be learned in the field of pancreas developmental biology to “build a better beta-cell” from stem cells or be able to produce entire islets in a dish for transplantation.
Professor Palle Serup and his lab at reNEW Copenhagen, exploring signaling pathways like Notch, seek to enhance stem cell-derived insulin-producing cells’ efficiency and functionality. Insights from pancreas developmental biology could pave the way for a “better beta-cell” and even entire pancreatic islets for transplantation. These advancements promise transformative diabetes management, bringing us closer to a future where patients achieve optimal blood sugar regulation through innovative stem cell therapies.
Professor Eelco de Koning and his lab at reNEW Leiden, based at the Leiden University Medical Center, are pioneers in the field of islet transplantation. Although this treatment changes the lives of patients with type 1 diabetes, its availability is currently limited by the number of islets that can be obtained from donor organs. Building on the experience in the isolation and transplantation of insulin-producing beta cells, his lab now aims to produce these cells from human iPS cells grown in the lab. This would provide an almost unlimited quantity of life-saving beta cells for transplantation to patients with type 1 diabetes around the world.
Professor Ed Stanley and his lab at reNEW Melbourne, based at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, are collaborating with teams at reNEW Copenhagen and reNEW Leiden to explore new ways to create improved beta cells from stem cells that better mimic the beta cells created in the body.
Through their combined expertise, they hope that they can improve the quality and quantity of lab-grown beta cells in order to make them suitable for stem cell based medicine that can cure children living with type 1 diabetes.