Stem cell therapies and diabetes – University of Copenhagen

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14 January 2016

Stem cell therapies and diabetes


Stem cell therapies could replace the damaged insulin-producing cells, essentially curing diabetes. Professor Henrik Semb in an interview to the EU Horizon magazine.

People with Type 1 diabetes could one day see the faulty cells in their pancreas either restored to health or replaced with new ones thanks to new research that could improve the lives of millions of people around Europe.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body’s defence mechanisms mistakenly attack its own cells and organs. In this case, the immune system attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, meaning that the body’s ability to process sugar, in the form of glucose, is damaged.

The abnormal blood sugar levels seen in people with diabetes can lead to serious complications ranging from blindness and kidney failure to stroke and foot amputations.

Today, people with Type 1 diabetes must inject themselves with insulin on a regular basis to avoid falling into a diabetic coma and to minimize their risk of serious long-term complications.

The EU Horizon magazine, (13 January 2016) describes two methods currently developed under EU FP7 funded projects, to treat this disease.

One of them is the HumEn project coordinated by Professor Henrik Semb, DanStem, The Faculty of Health and Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

The challenge is to understand how stem cells can be turned into functioning beta cells and then to transplant these into patients.

To do this, Professor Henrik Semb is working with pluripotent stem cells – a kind of immature cell which, in the right environment, can become any other type of body cell, a process known as differentiation.

The EU-funded HumEn project, led by Professor Semb, has been unpicking the mechanisms that lead pluripotent stem cells to become pancreatic beta cells and how to scale up this process. ‘For the up-scaling we are focusing on two stages of pancreatic differentiation known as definitive endoderm and pancreatic endoderm progenitors,’ said Prof. Semb.

The pancreatic endoderm progenitors could hold particular promise as these are the cells that determine the final size of the pancreas during embryonic development. The researchers are studying how to manipulate the expansion of these cells in the lab by exposing them to growth-promoting chemicals as well as physical forces such as pulling and stretching.

‘We are now able to make insulin-producing cells that work like normal beta cells in that they respond to changes in the glucose levels,’ Prof. Semb said. ‘The next step is to uncover what the signals are that regulate the expansion of the endodermal progenitors.’

If this can be achieved, the next task will be to figure out how to safely and reliably produce enough cells to develop a cell therapy product that helps patients. The consortium is also working with immunologists to understand how these cells might be introduced into the bodies of diabetic patients without being rejected.

‘I am very hopeful that in a couple of years we could perform the first trial,’ said Prof. Semb.

The HumEn project
Interview with Henrik Semb (vidoe)
This article originally appeared in Horizon magazine