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Curing Diabetes with Skin Cells

October 9, 2014

In the future, personalized medicine will probably be the standard for curing disease. Customizing treatments to the specific needs of each patient seems kind of like a “duh” idea, right? Well, there’s plenty of reasons why we haven’t achieved such a utopia yet, but rest assured that scientists are working on it!

Personalized medicine typically refers to treating diseases based on the individual genome of each patient. Your genome is unique, and drugs that work great for some may not work for you depending on your own genetic makeup (and vice versa). Sequencing your genome gives the doctor more information to work with, but some people fear that it’s a slippery slope to insurance discrimination and even making “designer babies.” But I promise, that is not the goal of personalized medicine!


For this particular post, however, I want to talk about a different type of personalized medicine – using someone’s own CELLS to treat their disease. To do this, scientists would take some of the patient’s skin cells and turn them into stem cells to be used therapeutically. If you aren’t familiar with stem cells, they’re basically cells that haven’t decided what they want to be when they grow up. Embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into ALL the cell types in your body (blood cells, skin cells, neurons, etc.), meaning they are pretty gosh darn useful. But obviously using embryos as medicine is controversial, so some really smart scientists decided to find another way.

Enter somatic cell nuclear transfer. It sounds fancy, but I bet you’re actually familiar with it – it’s how they cloned Dolly the Sheep. But how does it work?

Well, let’s break it down. “Somatic cell” is fancyspeak for “pretty much any cell that’s not an egg or sperm.” “Nuclear” refers to the nucleus, the part of every cell that holds your DNA. And just in case, “transfer” means move from one place to another. So scientists literally remove the nucleus from an unfertilized egg cell and replace it with the nucleus from a donor’s skin cell. Imagine it as a “yolk transplant” if you will. Because the nucleus is the part that contains DNA, the egg is now genetically identical to the person that donated the skin. You follow me so far?

At this point scientists culture the cell in special media that helps it divide over and over and retain “stemness” – meaning the cells don’t start turning into hair or teeth or anything, but remain undifferentiated. If you do this for long enough you will grow a giant army of cells, billions and billions in fact, that you can use as building blocks for therapeutics.

What diseases would you possibly cure with a crapload of undifferentiated cells? Well… none. You have to differentiate them first. Current research is focused on treatment of type 1 diabetes by turning these stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells. Type 1 diabetics have an autoimmune response that kills their own beta cells, making them unable to respond to changes in blood sugar. Using somatic cell nuclear transfer we hope to develop a way to make genetically-matched beta cells that could be transplanted back into the patient. Many scientists like to say the cure is “right around the corner!” because we’ve made so much progress, but we still have a long way to go.

So close, yet so far.

The trickiest part by far is making a petri dish of stem cells to turn into what you want. In the developing body these cells are constantly communicating with all their neighbors and being bathed in circulating blood hormones. The time and duration of each signal is essential for proper development, but we pretty much have no clue what the “be a stem cell” signaling pattern looks like. In fact, we’ve spent DECADES tinkering with culture conditions and we’re just now getting on the right track.

If scientists are successful, the next step will be generating fresh beta cells from the skin of diabetic patients and then implanting those cells back into their bodies. This will probably be in some kind of cassette that’s inserted under the skin, because it doesn’t really matter where your insulin comes from as long as it gets into the bloodstream. Realistically, designing these methods is a lot like inventing the plane. We sort of know the important elements but getting them to work together is another story.

Is this right??

So anyway, I really do believe this technique will develop into a viable therapy for not only diabetes, but many other diseases. It’s a matter of working it out so that we can do it perfectly every time, so it’s worth the wait. It might seems like scientists are always telling you the cure is almost here, but that’s because 10-15 years isn’t very long in terms of scientific discovery. To scientists, that really is almost here. I mean, for Pete’s sake, when a PhD student says they’re “almost done” they really mean “I’m going to be here for at least twelve more years.”

Know how you can help speed it up? Vote for people that support stem cell research, or any research for that matter. In the science world mo’ means money mo’ biomedical advancement.

“Yay stem cell research!” – Notorious B.I.G.



From → Biology

One Comment
  1. wendyborex permalink

    It’s nice to have the field recognized so publicly but I think we still have a long way to go. That whole teratoma thing and overcoming the immune system for starters.

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