Are stomach stem cells a promising cure for diabetes?

Researchers may have successfully converted stomach stem cells into insulin-producing cells, potentially offering a cure for diabetes
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Stock photo: Nurse making a diabetes blood test with lancet.
Stock photo: Nurse making a diabetes blood test with lancet.

Kateryna Novikova/iStock  

Imagine a future where patients with diabetes can produce their insulin, eliminating the need for daily injections. It would even mean eliminating diabetes as a disease itself.

This dream may become a reality thanks to a groundbreaking discovery involving stem cells derived from the human stomach. Researchers have successfully transformed these stomach stem cells into insulin-producing cells that respond to changes in blood glucose levels, mimicking the behavior of healthy pancreatic cells. This breakthrough holds immense potential for revolutionizing diabetes treatment.

Type 1 diabetes, which affects millions worldwide, is believed to be caused by an autoimmune response where the body mistakenly attacks and destroys the pancreas' beta cells responsible for insulin production. For years, scientists have been searching for a way to replace these lost cells using stem cells.

In this quest, they turned their attention to the stomach's remarkable stem cells, known as gastric stem cells, which have the ability to regenerate the intestinal lining every five to seven days.

Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine have now achieved a significant milestone. They successfully converted human gastric stem cells into insulin-secreting cells that respond to blood glucose levels, just like healthy pancreatic beta cells would. Dr. Joe Zhou, the study's corresponding author, explained that the proximity and developmental similarities between stomach cells and pancreatic cells made this transformation possible.

Early experiments in mice showed that ordinary pancreatic cells could be converted into insulin-secreting beta cells by activating three specific transcription factors, proteins that regulate gene expression. In 2016, Dr. Zhou and his team discovered that gastric stem cells responded well to this three-factor activation method.

Endoscopy to extract the gastric stem cells

In the study, the researchers extracted gastric stem cells from human subjects using a non-surgical procedure called endoscopy. They converted these cells into beta-like cells, called gastric insulin-secreting cells (GINS), and grew them into clusters known as organoids. Surprisingly, within 10 days, the organoids became sensitive to glucose and began secreting insulin in response.

To test the effectiveness of the GINS cells, they were transplanted into diabetic mice. The results were highly promising, as the transplanted cells behaved similarly to authentic pancreatic beta cells.

They responded to elevated blood glucose levels by secreting insulin, effectively regulating glucose levels in the mice. Impressively, the transplanted cells continued to produce insulin for the entire six-month monitoring period, demonstrating their durability.

Are stomach stem cells a promising cure for diabetes?
Testing blood sugar

Dr. Zhou emphasized that this study is a proof-of-concept, laying a strong foundation for developing a treatment using patients' cells for both type 1 and severe type 2 diabetes.

Currently, individuals with type 1 diabetes rely on insulin injections or wearable insulin pumps, while some with advanced type 2 diabetes require supplemental insulin. Although there is still work to be done before clinical trials can commence, this groundbreaking research offers hope for individuals living with diabetes worldwide.

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