Investigational Biotech Diabetes Treatment May Improve Insulin Regulation

Modified kidney cells could potentially regulate insulin for 3 weeks in patients with diabetes.

In a new study, scientists used a novel approach to treat diabetes using artificial beta cells from human kidney cells, which have the same mechanisms as naturally-occurring cells.

The artificial cells can measure glucose in the blood, and produce insulin to lower blood glucose levels, according to a study published in Science. Previous approaches relied on stem cells that were matured into beta cells through the addition of growth factors, or integrating genetic networks.

The new approach involved the use of HEK cells, which is a cell line based on kidney cells, to develop the artificial beta cells. Specifically, they used the glucose transport proteins and potassium channels located in the cell membrane to create the artificial cells. The researchers then used a voltage-dependent calcium channel, a gene for insulin, and GLP-1 production to enhance these aspects of the cell, according to the study.

The HEK cell’s natural glucose transport protein brings glucose from the blood into the artificial beta cells. Once the blood sugar level increased passed a certain level, the potassium channels closed, according to the study.

When the potassium channels close, the voltage distribution at the membrane changes, which results in the calcium channels opening. The influx of calcium then causes a signaling cascade in the HEK cells that leads to the creation of GLP-1 or insulin.

The scientists found that tests in the artificial cells of mice models with diabetes showed the cells to be extremely effective.

"They worked better and for longer than any solution achieved anywhere in the world so far," said lead researcher Martin Fussenegger, PhD.

When implanted into these mice models, the modified HEK cells were able to create messengers to regulate blood sugar for 3 weeks, according to the study.

The scientists originally created an experimental computer model to determine whether artificial beta cells would produce beneficial effects.

"The data from the experiments and the values calculated using the models were almost identical," Dr Fussenegger said.

According to the study, this team of researchers have conducted ongoing work to develop biotechnology-based treatments for diabetes, and 7 months ago they grew beta cells from stem cells derived from human fatty tissue.

Unfortunately, this technique is rather costly, since the cells would need to be created for each individual person. However, this novel method could potentially be appropriate for all patients with diabetes, making it less costly compared with the alternative.

Prior to reaching the market, these cells would need to undergo extensive clinical trials to confirm their feasibility for use in humans. These trials can be costly and span many years, but if these findings are proven in humans, these cells could offer a new treatment for diabetes.

"If our cells clear all the hurdles, they could reach the market in 10 years," Dr Fussenegger concluded.