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Adult Stem Cells Engineered to Produce Insulin

Reuters, May 25, 2007

Friday, U.S. and British researchers reported that diabetes could be treated by using stem cells taken from the umbilical cords of newborns. The cells could be engineered to produce insulin.

Insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are damaged by diabetes. Researchers were able to take stem cells, expand them into a large number, and direct them to be similar to the insulin producing cells. The cells could potentially be used to fill the void left in the pancreas due to the damage that is caused by diabetes.

“This discovery tells us that we have the potential to produce insulin from adult stem cells to help people with diabetes,” said Dr. Randall Urban of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, who directed the study.

“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 in a statement.

Finding an alternative to using controversial embryonic stem cells is the goal of the researchers, which included a team at Britain’s University of Newcastle. They made their statement writing in the journal Cell Proliferation.

The deliberation surrounding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been a hot topic on the floor of the United States Congress. Supporters say that the funding is paramount so embryonic stem cell research can have the resources needed to change medicine, but opponents consider it wrong to use human embryos for experimentation.

Most of the science is aimed at replacing damaged or defective tissue or blood by taking stem cells from a patient's own blood and engineering them in the laboratory to apply towards regenerative medicine techniques.

Other researchers are hoping to eventually persuade maybe an ordinary skin cell to give rise to any tissue in the body, while remaining almost immortal. They study these characteristics in embryonic stem cells and by understanding how the mechanisms work, hope to apply and duplicate them as in the aforementioned example.

Because it is an especially rich source of adult stem cells, the Newcastle and Texas researchers used umbilical cord blood for their experiments.

For people with diabetes, creating new pancreatic tissue is one of hte accomplishments the researchers hope to eventually achieve. Since the cells have been destroyed, the body can no longer produce insulin: such is the case in type-1 diabetes.

But skeptics do remain, such as stem cell expert Dr. Rudolf Jaenisch, of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“In the past, these claims have been rather unconvincing,” Jaenisch said in a telephone interview.

He said that prior research of this type had yielded results that had been misinterpreted, or that adult stem cells had actually been coaxed into insulin producing cells, but had produced an insignificant amount of insulin.


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