UCSF Team First to Grow Insulin-Producing Cells from Human Stem Cells


Researchers at UCSF have created insulin-producing cells from human stem cells, an important new benchmark on the road to curing type 1 diabetes. This is the first time scientists have been able to achieve this feat of regenerative medicine. An exciting breakthrough, it’s worth note that the cells have not yet been studied in humans—and further work will need to be done to avoid an immune response if they were implanted in a patient. 

The ability to grow insulin-producing cells from human stem cells is critical because in the case of those with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells in the body that produce insulin are destroyed and the pancreas can no longer produce insulin. As a result, those with type 1 diabetes (T1D) are unable to self-regulate blood sugar levels. There has long been a hope to somehow regenerate these cells and cure the disease. Researchers have been unable to figure how to truly reproduce these cells—until now.

“We can now generate insulin-producing cells that look and act a lot like the pancreatic beta cells you and I have in our bodies. This is a critical step towards our goal of creating cells that could be transplanted into patients with diabetes,” said Matthias Hebrok, PhD, director of the UCSF Diabetes Center.

Those with type 1 diabetes must constantly monitor blood sugars and administer insulin to avoid highs and lows, both of which can lead to serious and life-threatening complications in the short and long term. While some may be eligible for a pancreas transplant from a donor, these situations are extremely rare, have a high fail rate and still require immunosuppressant drugs. Researchers at UCSF have sought out stem cell technology to circumvent this process by way of transplanting new, reproduced beta cells into patients instead.

“Current therapeutics like insulin injections only treat the symptoms of the disease,” Gopika Nair, PhD, the postdoctoral fellow who led this study, said. “Our work points to several exciting avenues to finally finding a cure.”

Hebrok’s team replicated the islet-forming process by artificially separating stem cells and purposefully grouping them into clusters. The cells then began to respond to blood sugar much more like true beta cells would. The team then transplanted the new cells into mice and discovered that they were producing insulin within days, reacting as normal beta cells would in response to blood sugar.

“We’re finally able to move forward on a number of different fronts that were previously closed to us,” Hebrok added. “The possibilities seem endless.” 

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WRITTEN BY Jordan Dakin, POSTED 02/19/19, UPDATED 11/05/22

Jordan recently graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles after earning her BA in English and Film Studies. She is a passionate storyteller, traveler, and lover of people and hopes to use her experience working in tech and as a writer to advocate for the BT1 community. In her spare time, she also enjoys hiking, karaoke, and cooking for friends. Check her out on Instagram: @jordanemilydakin.