Islets of youth

Turning the clock back on diabetes

Bill Snyder
Published: August, 2008

In the not-too-distant future, a child with type 1 diabetes will prick her finger, not to find out if she needs insulin, but to help scientists cure her disease.

Cells from her blood, a scrape of her skin, or another tissue will be “re-programmed” in the laboratory to create insulin-producing beta cells. They’ll be injected back into her body in an attempt to repair her damaged pancreas.

“I think we’ll be putting pancreatic beta cells that have been made in a dish into people within 10 years,” says Mark Magnuson, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Stem Cell Biology.

Sounds like science fiction?

Magnuson and others might have agreed – until last year, when several provocative reports were published.

Cells in the pancreas of a 1-week-old mouse that express the Ptf1a transcription factor gene are revealed in this photograph. The Ptf1a gene has been genetically engineered to express a bacterial enzyme that produces a dark blue color. In both mice and humans, Ptf1a is essential for formation of the entire pancreas, including insulin-secreting beta cells. By tracing the “cell lineage,” or family history, of Ptf1a-expressing cells, scientists hope to learn more about how to maintain—or restore—the function of beta cells. At top right is the sausage-shaped spleen (light orange), and at bottom is the duodenum.
Photo by Fong Cheng Pan, Ph.D., research fellow, Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, Vanderbilt University. Courtesy of Christopher V. E. Wright, D.Phil.

By inserting various combinations of genes, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reported that they had “induced” human skin cells to revert to an embryonic-like state of “pluripotency” – capable of turning into any other kind of cell.

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