Diabetes: Human Skin Cells Turned Into Insulin-Producing Cells

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Millions of people with diabetes and type 2 diabetes may have a new treatment available in the future, and one that’s close to science fiction. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, researchers have learned how to reprogram skin cells into insulin producing cells.

First the human skin cells were transformed into pluripotent stem cells, which are cells that can become any other fetal or adult cell type, then into the cells that can produce insulin. Although there has been other previous research in this field, UNC is the first study (published online in the Journal of Biological Chemistry)to show that the human skin cells turned stem cells can be manipulated into differentiating.

"Not only have we shown that we can reprogram skin cells, but we have also demonstrated that these reprogrammed cells can be differentiated into insulin-producing cells which hold great therapeutic potential for diabetes," said study lead author Yi Zhang, Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UNC and member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"Of course, there are many years of additional studies that are required first, but this study provides hope for a cure for all patients with diabetes," said John Buse, M.D., Ph.D., president of the American Diabetes Association and professor and chief of the endocrinology division in the UNC School of Medicine’s department of medicine.

Other current research has been studying transplantation of insulin-producing beta cells, but transplants require immune suppression.  Zhang’s approach potentially eliminated that issue because the insulin-producing cells would be made directly from the individual diabetic patient.

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