Researchers have successfully engineered adult stem cells from human umbilical cord blood to make insulin.
The study may help cure type 1 diabetes by allowing people to grow their own insulin-producing cells for a damaged or defective pancreas.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Dr. Randall J. Urban at University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
As part of the study, researchers tested adult stem cells in the laboratory to ensure that they were predisposed to divide. Then they used a previously successful method in which complex signals produced by the embryonic mouse pancreas were used to direct adult stem cells to begin developing, or 'differentiating' into islet-like cells.
They found that these adult stem cells showed evidence of a characteristic, or marker, known as SSEA-4 that was previously thought to exist only in embryonic cells.
They also found that just as embryonic cells have been shown to do, these adult stem cells produced both C-peptide, a part of the insulin precursor protein, and insulin itself.
Confirming the presence of the C-peptide was especially crucial, because although insulin is often found in the growth media with which the cells are nurtured and is often taken up by such cells, the presence of the C-peptide proves that at least some of the insulin was produced, or synthesized, by the engineered cells.
"This discovery tells us that we have the potential to produce insulin from adult stem cells to help people with diabetes," Urban said.
It doesn't prove that we're going to be able to do this in people — it's just the first step up the rung of the ladder," Urban added.
The findings of the study were published in the June 2007 issue of the medical journal Cell Proliferation.