While not having love handles in the first place would probably be an ideal situation, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich have found an exciting new use for the cells that reside in the undesirable flabby tissue—creating pancreatic beta cells. The ETH researchers extracted stem cells from a 50-year-old test subject's fatty tissue and reprogrammed them into mature, insulin-producing beta cells.
The findings from this study were published recently in Nature Communications in an article entitled “A Programmable Synthetic Lineage-Control Network That Differentiates Human IPSCs into Glucose-Sensitive Insulin-Secreting Beta-Like Cells.”
The investigators added a highly complex synthetic network of genes to the stem cells to recreate precisely the key growth factors involved in this maturation process. Central to the process were the growth factors Ngn3, Pdx1, and MafA; the researchers found that concentrations of these factors change during the differentiation process.
For instance, MafA is not present at the start of maturation. Only on day 4, in the final maturation step, does it appear, its concentration rising steeply and then remaining at a high level. The changes in the concentrations of Ngn3 and Pdx1, however, are very complex: while the concentration of Ngn3 rises and then falls again, the level of Pdx1 rises at the beginning and toward the end of maturation.
Senior study author Martin Fussenegger, Ph.D., professor of biotechnology and bioengineering at ETH Zurich's department of biosystems science and engineering stressed that it was essential to reproduce these natural processes as closely as possible to produce functioning beta cells, stating that “the timing and the quantities of these growth factors are extremely important.”
The ETH researchers believe that their work is a real breakthrough, in that a synthetic gene network has been used successfully to achieve genetic reprogramming that delivers beta cells. Until now, scientists have controlled such stem cell differentiation processes by adding various chemicals and proteins exogenously.
“It's not only really hard to add just the right quantities of these components at just the right time, but it's also inefficient and impossible to scale up,” Dr. Fussenegger noted.
While the beta cells not only looked very similar to their natural counterparts—containing dark spots known as granules that store insulin—the artificial beta cells also functioned in a very similar manner. However, the researchers admit that more work needs to be done to increase the insulin output.
“At the present time, the quantities of insulin they secrete are not as great as with natural beta cells,” Dr. Fussenegger stated. Yet, the key point is that the researchers have for the first time succeeded in reproducing the entire natural process chain, from stem cell to differentiated beta cell.
In future, the ETH scientists’ novel technique might make it possible to implant new functional beta cells in diabetes sufferers that are made from their adipose tissue. While beta cells have been transplanted in the past, this has always required subsequent suppression of the recipient's immune system—as with any transplant of donor organs or tissue.
“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient's own body,” Dr. Fussenegger said. “This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes.”