Future Diabetes Treatment? Harvard Scientists Reprogram Pancreas Cells to Make Insulin.

James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Scientists have now succeeded in manipulating the DNA in mouse cells to make them become different cells altogether, according to a Nature study, published online on August 27, 2008. They called it reprogramming.

There are two types of cells in the pancreas (which is where these came from).

  • Exocrine cells produce digestive enzymes.
  • Islet beta-cells produce insulin.

They are totally different, never performing the other ones’ function. When the islet beta-cells don’t work correctly, there is no insulin production, hence diabetes. Scientists have transplanted beta cells from another source into a pancreas before. It can work, but the body tries to get rid of (reject) these foreign cells so that’s a big problem. You have to take strong medication to weaken your immune system so your antibodies won’t reject a transplant.

But this is different. Consider the implications.

These scientists did not use embryonic, or even adult, stem cells. (Stem cells are those that have yet to become specific cells.) They used the cells already in use. They infected the pancreas with a virus containing three genes that are known to produce beta-cells. Twenty percent of the mice pancreas exocrine cells were permanently converted into beta-cells that worked just like regular beta-cells. The virus was able to get the DNA of 20 percent of the cells to start using these genes.

If it happens with pancreas cells, then the same procedure, with different viruses and genes, might reprogram other types of cells such as nerve cells in spinal cord injuries.

By now you have thought of the problems. I mean, it was in mice. It will be about five years before they might be able to try it in humans. Viruses were involved, but they were “good viruses.” Other worries might be other, unknown ways these DNA manipulating viruses might affect the body, and how long will any of the effects last. There is always a concern for cancer risks. But it is a start, and safety will be a major part of the subsequent studies, I’m sure.

What do you think? Are you willing to go first? Personally, I continue to be amazed with science.

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3 Responses to “Future Diabetes Treatment? Harvard Scientists Reprogram Pancreas Cells to Make Insulin.”

  1. Mark Salinas Says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    Mark Salinass last blog post..Core Challenge

  2. Blake Hagen Says:

    don’t think i wanna go first but i think this is definitely interesting. it is amazing what science can do these days…i wonder what it will be able to do 50 years from now!

    Blake Hagens last blog post..I Like Watermelon

  3. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks Mark and Blake. We are in the beginning stages of genetic engineering, with all of its promise and fear.

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