Beta cells divide and conquer?

As reported by JDRF, funded scientists at the University of Pittsburgh in America have uncovered a new way to grow human beta cells in the lab.

The team led by Professor Andrew Stewart, were able to get human beta cells to divide and make more cells. Not only that, but they then managed to stop the cells dividing again. The research was published in this month’s issue of the journal Diabetes.

The researchers added genes called cdk and cyclin d into the beta cells. These genes make the cells divide and are usually switched off in beta cells. To deliver these genes into the cells they used a virus that can get into cells easily. Once they had enough beta cells, they added a drug to the cells which switched off the virus and stopped the cells dividing.

In the body, beta cells divide very slowly or not at all so when the immune system attacks them, the cells are not replaced. Usually in type 1 diabetes there are a few beta cells remaining and if scientists could make these cells divide they could replace the cells destroyed by the immune system.

It is also difficult for scientists to study human beta cells in the lab because beta cells are in such short supply. So making more of them will allow scientists to do more research towards finding a cure for type 1.

Although these researchers had previously shown that they could make beta cells divide, this latest study shows that they have developed a way to stop the cells dividing as well. This is particularly useful because the genes they used to make the cells divide are not usually switched on in beta cells – so when they are dividing a lot they are not identical to the beta cells in the body. Switching these genes off again makes them more similar to ‘real world’ beta cells, which means any discoveries scientists make using these cells  are more likely to be applicable to beta cells in the body.

Rachel Connor, Head of Research Communication at JDRF, said ‘These are very interesting results because it is often difficult for scientists to get human beta cells to study. Growing beta cells in the laboratory that are as similar as possible to those in our bodies will help type 1 diabetes researchers to test their ideas and develop new ways of treating type 1 much more effectively.’

Read more about our work on beta cells

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