Beta cells

Bolstering beta cells ready for transplantation

Professor Shanta Persaud and Dr Aileen King’s Beta Cell Therapy Programme Grant project

Prof Shanta Persaud in the lab

Professor Shanta Persaud and Dr Aileen King are world-leading experts at studying how insulin-producing beta cells work and develop in humans. They’ll use their specialised knowledge to run state-of-the-art experiments and find ways to improve methods to engineer new beta cells in the lab, so they act and react more like real human beta cells. This project could help to accelerate progress towards life-changing new treatments that restore insulin production in people with type 1 and bring us closer to a cell-based cure for the condition.

Background to the research project

People with type 1 diabetes rely on insulin injections or pumps to replace what the immune system has destroyed. While insulin therapy is lifesaving, current insulins don’t come close to the minute-to-minute adjustments that beta cells make to manage blood sugar levels.

Scientists have been trying to find ways to give people with type 1 new beta cells, by making them in the lab from stem cells and transplanting them inside the body. Although lots of progress has been made in recent years, lab-made cells just aren’t as good at producing insulin or responding to changing blood sugar levels as real beta cells are.

Lots of what we know about turning stem cells into beta cells is based on how beta cells develop in mice. But Professor Persaud and Dr King have been studying human pancreas development and want to harness this knowledge to make better performing beta cells that are well equipped to survive transplantation.

What will the team do in this project?

Professor Persaud and Dr King will lead a team to:

  1. Improve the process of turning stem cells into beta cells.

They’ve discovered that cells that support nerve cells (called Schwann cells) may also help support beta cells. They will carry out tests to see if Schwann cells could improve the ability of stem cells to transform into functioning beta cells.

  1. Make sure lab-grown beta cells produce the right amount of insulin.

Once beta cells have been made, the team must make sure they are an elite class of insulin producers. They’ll run tests to see what type of support, nutrients and special molecules can help the newly made cells work even better.

Next, they’ll use state-of-the-art techniques to rigorously test if the lab-made beta cells are really acting like real beta cells. This includes looking at how the lab-made beta cells use oxygen, store insulin and respond to rising blood sugar levels.

  1. Give lab-grown beta cells the best chance of surviving after transplantation.

The team will coat clusters of lab-grown beta cells with survival boosting molecules, by a process called nanoencapsulation, and test if this helps them survive transplantation better.

How will this research help people with type 1 diabetes?

Having an unlimited supply of elite beta cells ready for transplantation could mean a future where people with type 1 diabetes never have to think about their blood sugar levels or insulin, because their beta cells are doing it for them. While transplants would also help to reduce the risk of developing diabetes complications.

If successful, this project will turbo charge progress towards clinical trials of transplants using new and improved lab-grown lab cells, and move us closer to a cure.

Dr Aileen King said:

“People with type 1 diabetes have to constantly think about their blood glucose levels and adjust their insulin doses in response. Our aspiration is to produce fully functioning beta cells suitable to implant into people living with type 1 diabetes, which do this on their behalf.

“This would be transformative for people with the condition, as it would restore the body’s minute-to-minute insulin production that is required to carefully control blood glucose levels – reducing the risk of dangerous blood sugar lows and long-term diabetes complications, while also reducing the huge psychological impact of living with diabetes.”