Stem cells for Diabetes

October 13, 2016 11:56 AM

“When I was growing up, diabetes didn’t seem to be a big deal because my father only had a minor version of the illness,” said Dr. Matthias Hebrok of his profound interest in diabetes research. “Now, seeing (my father) toward the end of his life, the illness has dramatic consequences. So, I decided to study this particular topic.”
Hebrok is the director of the Diabetes Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
He decided to pursue this area of study after witnessing the long-term repercussions of his father’s illness, which was diagnosed almost 50 years ago.
Hebrok delivered a lecture on Sept. 29th at Berkeley City College on stem cell therapy and its potential impact on diabetes. Hebrok and his colleagues are performing numerous laboratory experiments using embryonic stem cells.
They hope to mutate these stem cells — special cells from which many different types of cells with various functions can be formed through mitosis, producing beta cells in the lab that, when injected into the human body, will allow the pancreas to make its own insulin.
Beta cells, located in the pancreas, are responsible for creating, storing, and distributing insulin throughout the body in order to regulate glucose (sugar) levels in the bloodstream. Insulin allows various cells throughout the body to take in glucose for energy. In Type 1 Diabetes, the beta cells are attacked by the immune system to which they appear as foreign. In Type 2 Diabetes, the cells are incapable of producing an ample amount of insulin for blood glucose regulation.
Symptoms of diabetes include abnormal weight loss or gain, loss of energy, hunger, dehydration, numbness across the body, sexual dysfunction (in men), and swollen or infected gums.
Doctors advise diabetics to be physically active, even moderately; doing so lowers the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Patients also need to be aware of what, when, and how much they eat as a number of foods (particularly those high in carbohydrates and sugar) can easily spike blood sugar levels or lead to weight gain (obesity is a common cause of type 2 diabetes).
According to the American Diabetes Association website, the rate of Type 2 Diabetes across youth in the U.S. increased by 21 percent from 2001-2009, and Type 1 by 23 percent. Some of the more notable diabetics include Tom Hanks, Michael Phelps, and Salma Hayek.
Hebrok described the components of experimental procedures he is currently conducting.
“Mouse models have allowed us to formulate hypotheses and test them; they have allowed us to understand how the pancreas forms over time during embryogenesis; we have been able to use that information to instruct the formation of functioning beta cells from human stem cells,” he said.
“We are moving toward that goal; our cells are looking quite good in terms of functionality.”
Hebrok explained that diabetes affects one in 12 people worldwide–half of those people are unaware that they have it. He added that it is ideal to recognize the onset of any possible symptoms. Dr. Barbara DesRochers, director of the Biotechnology Program at BCC, concurs.
“Hebrok is doing what we call the ‘latest cutting edge research’ in this field,” she said. “The outcome of this research is going to touch so many people with diabetes not only in this area, but across the world.”
The presentation was given in a manner which any person could understand, regardless of whether or not science was their area of expertise. Hebrok would describe or clarify elements or concepts as needed, such as the functions, pronunciations, and abbreviations of various cells and organs. Audience members were fully engaged, taking notes and asking thoughtful questions such as, “What happens if the pancreas rejects those mutated stem cells?”
The potential for rejection of implanted stem cells by the immune system is a concern which Hebrok, along with UCSF colleague Dr. Mark Anderson, has been dealing with for years. The immune system protects the body against whatever it sees as foreign to itself. Transplants, such as the mutated stem cells, are often perceived as foreigners by the immune system.
During the process, Hebrok and Anderson have found that transplantation is more likely to be successful if the stem cells are maneuvered down different pathways concurrently. This will produce both thymus tissue and a replacement organ without the use of an immunosuppression which can be detrimental.
“I think, at some point, we will have something that people would consider to be a biological cure, possibly based on cell therapy,” Hebrok expressed. “I am hopeful that, at some point, diabetes might cease to exist if we are lucky enough.”

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