Danish researchers discover how to convert progenitor cells into beta cells

Human stem cells can now effectively be specialized to create functioning beta cells, a discovery that could greatly aid diabetics struggling with insulin shortages, according to new research published in Nature Cell Biology.

A team of Danish researchers led by doctor Henrik Semb initially aimed to study progenitor cells and the underlying pathways that lead them to their final destinations, focusing additionally on complex piping systems within the body that transport fluids and gasses within organs. What they found was unexpected: the same pathway that controls pipe formation—epidermal growth factor (EGF)—controls progenitor cell development through shifts in a cell’s polarity.

“Cell polarity is important for forming the tubes where these progenitors reside, at the same time also regulating their maturation into insulin-producing cells,” Semb said in a University of Copenhagen video.

Using EGF, the conversion of a progenitor cell to a specialized, insulin-producing beta cell was easy for Semb and colleagues to control, creating a novel possibility for insulin production, according to the research.

Semb and co-authors used mice models in their work but confirmed the process is successful in human stem cells, as well. In the future, Semb said, scientists will hopefully be able to successfully transfer these new beta cells into patients with diabetes.

“We’ve been able now to be more efficient in generating insulin-producing beta cells from human stem cells,” Semb said in the video. “We have been able to identify which signals convert the progenitor into an insulin-producing cell. I think it’s a breakthrough.”