Diabetes researcher’s hunt for islet cells gets $1.9 million NIH boost

May 2, 2014 | by

Researchers are working hard to make needles a thing of the past for people with type 1 diabetes. Islet transplantation is proving to be a powerful and promising way to do that, but the supply of islets is extremely limited. Teresa Ku, Ph.D., is working to find more islets, and a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help her do that.

Teresa Ku, Ph.D., is working to find more islets, and a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help her do that.

Teresa Ku received a five-year, $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to produce more islet cells to treat type 1 diabetes.

Islets are groups of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, the hormone that enables the body to process sugar. In people with type 1 diabetes, islets cells are damaged or destroyed. These patients must inject themselves with insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

By transplanting patients with healthy islets from donors, researchers hope to restore their ability to produce insulin in the body and eliminate the need for injections.

Unfortunately, donated islets are in very short supply. Current methods require at least two pancreases per patient to get enough islets for a successful transplant. So scientists such as Ku, an associate professor in the Division of Developmental & Translational Diabetes and Endocrine Research, are looking for ways to grow these insulin-producing cells in the laboratory to make large batches for later transplant.

Researchers already have used embryonic stem cells to make insulin-producing cells that can be transplanted, but those cells have been shown to carry a risk of cancer. Scientists believe that they can avoid the cancer risk by using stem cells from adult pancreases.

Ku and her team have already developed a unique method to find these stem cells in adult mice. “Our assays allow the study of pancreatic stem and progenitor cells at the single-cell level,” she said. That’s important because it’s the only way they can fish out these cells from among all the other pancreatic cells.

Now, with the new grant, they hope to adapt the technique to find these stem cells in human pancreases. If they’re successful, they may have a source of safe stem cells that can overcome the limited supply of islets and one day give all patients with type 1 diabetes a cure.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under grant number 1R01DK099734-01A1. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.