Defining the Transcription Factors Capable of Forming Pancreatic Beta-Cells from Human Embryonic Stem Cells

In Type 1 diabetes the body’s immune system attacks key cells of the pancreas known as beta-cells. The loss of these cells results in a loss of the protein hormone insulin which is secreted by the beta-cells in response to high blood sugar levels. Recently, advances in the field of pancreatic islet cell transplantation have shown that the replacement of beta-cells represents a possible cure for diabetes. Unfortunately, the poor availability of donor organs to provide the transplantation cell source greatly limits the use of this treatment. One promising possible source of new beta-cells for transplantation is human embryonic stem cells (hESCs,) and a number of researchers have shown that these cells can form pancreatic tissue including beta-cells. Blair Gage is currently exploring how proteins known as transcription factors (TFs), control the formation of beta-cells from hESCs. Specifically, he is investigating whether adding TFs, which help in the formation of beta-cells, and removing the TFs, which block the formation of beta-cells, will help in understanding how to control hESC growth and development. The results of Mr. Gage’s research will enhance ongoing work with industry and the Canadian Stem Cell Network that is focused on stimulating hESCs to form beta-cells for transplantation. The ultimate goals is to apply this technology to the treatment of patients with diabetes in a similar way to that of islet tissue transplantation, using a theoretically limitless supply of beta-cells.