AstraZeneca entered into a five-year research collaboration with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) to adapt a technique that creates human beta cells from stem cells for use in screens of AstraZeneca’s compound library in the search for new treatments for diabetes. The collaboration also aims to better understand how the function of beta cells declines in diabetes. Research findings will be made available to the broader scientific community through peer-reviewed publications.

In people with type 1 diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by an autoimmune response and patients must inject insulin to maintain normal blood glucose levels. In type 2 diabetes, the beta cells either fail to function properly or their numbers decrease. Human beta cells for research are extremely limited in number and availability.

However, a team led by HSCI co-chairman and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Doug Melton, Ph.D., reportedly has developed a technique, which allows limitless quantities of beta cells to be produced from human induced pluripotent stem cells generated directly from adult cells, similar in all important respects to those found in healthy individuals.

AstraZeneca will provide funding for a team of investigators at HSCI lead by Dr.  Melton as well as establishing an in-house team in Mölndal, Sweden, dedicated to the collaboration. Scientists from each organization will work together to understand the biology behind the loss of human beta cell function and mass in diabetes, and to screen compounds against the cells produced to search for potential new medicines that could restore beta cell activity in diabetic patients.

“We are excited about the potential of this latest collaboration with Harvard University,” says Marcus Schindler, Ph.D., head of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, innovative medicine and early development, AstraZeneca. “Professor Melton’s group has made an extraordinary breakthrough in the differentiation of human stem cells into human beta cells and our scientists are extremely excited to be working alongside his team. Harnessing this new technology has the potential to transform the research and development of new treatments for patients with diabetes.”

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