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Reprogramming Human Skin Cells to Produce Insulin

Mar 12, 2016

Conversion of skin cells to pancreatic cells may lead to new cell replacement therapies.

The production of operative pancreatic insulin-producing beta cells for the effective treatment of diabetes is a key area of research presently. Scientists have succeeded in converting human skin cells into completely functioning, insulin-producing pancreatic cells. A recent study published in Nature Communications reveals that this unique methodology to cellular reprogramming not only works, but also has the aptitude to be scaled up in order to generate masses of these cells, in a meticulous, controlled manner. This crucial area of what is known as “translational” research–utilizing findings in medical research and crafting them so that they are practical and meaningful to patients–is the generation of insulin-producing pancreatic cells.

Human skin cells are an abundant, easily available source of human tissue, making them ideal for this type of research. To better imitate pancreas cells’ aptitude to control blood sugar, the researchers took these skin cells from newborns and essentially reprogrammed the cells into pancreatic beta cells by merging them with molecules that direct the cells to regress to a former stage of cell progress, segregate and ultimately multiply.

The endoderm is one of the top layers on an undeveloped human embryo. “Progenitor” cells are those that can change into other types of cell. Although comparable to a “pluripotent” stem cell, which can develop into any cell that can be found in the human body, these progenitor cells are somewhat distinguished already, which means that they are already predetermined to become a certain target cell. By not transporting the skin cells back to the most rudimentary pluripotent stem cells, the scientists were able to wheedle them into becoming pancreatic cells more quickly than ever before. Using supplementary instigating chemicals, the endoderm progenitor cells began to divide quickly, eventually touching a trillion-fold reproduction rate. With additional chemical extraction, these cells eventually became the first pancreatic precursor cells and then completely operative pancreatic beta cells, which store and release insulin.

The researchers implanted these new cells into mice and found that these pancreas cells prevented the mice from developing diabetes; these findings are monumental because they raise confidence in patients with type 2 diabetes, making it probable for them to one day be able to utilize their own reprogrammed skin cells to regulate their blood glucose. It is vital to note that none of the mice receiving these human cells grew tumors, which is a major concern when transplanting reprogrammed cells or cells derivative from pluripotent stem cells. For patients with type 1 diabetes, however, the cells would not be beneficial because the immune system would probably attack and abolish the reprogrammed cells. As promising as this new development is, the reprogrammed cells are not as proficient at discharging insulin as mature pancreatic beta cells are, and further research will have to be fixated on making these cells as analogous to those originating in the body naturally, as well as finding a way to defend the cells from the immune system.

Matthias Hebrok, a co-senior author on the research involving these human skin cells, states that the “results demonstrate for the first time that human adult skin cells can be used to efficiently and rapidly generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similar to human beta cells. This finding opens up the opportunity for the analysis of patient-specific pancreatic beta cell properties and the optimization of cell therapy approaches.” This research is groundbreaking because not only can scientists utilize this method to produce enhanced cellular models of diabetes to help understand why the disease occurs, but they can also now cultivate new cell replacement therapies in humans.

Practice Pearls:

  • This new cellular reprogramming and expansion paradigm is more sustainable and scalable than previous methods.
  • Using this approach, insulin-producing pancreatic cells may be able to be massively increased.
  • Scientists may in the future be able to produce infinite numbers of patient-matched insulin manufacturing pancreatic cells.

Researched and prepared by Javeria Fayyaz Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate LECOM College of Pharmacy, reviewed by Dave Joffe, BSPharm, CDE.


Human pancreatic beta-like cells converted from fibroblasts. Saiyong Zhu, Holger A. Russ, Xiaojing Wang, Mingliang Zhang, Tianhua Ma, Tao Xu, Shibing Tang, Matthias Hebrok & Sheng Ding.Nature Communications. doi:10.1038/ncomms10080. Published online 06 January 2016.

“Insulin-producing Pancreatic Cells Created from Human Skin Cells.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, 06 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Jacob, Amy. “Human Skin Cells Create Insulin-Producing Pancreatic Cells.” MD Magazine. N.p., 07 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.