'Love handles' stem cell breakthrough may offer hope for people with diabetes


Scientists say they have managed to genetically reprogramme stem cells from "love handles" and turn them into insulin-producing cells.

Researchers in Basel, Switzerland, extracted stem cells from a 50-year-old's fatty tissue and genetically reprogrammed them to make them mature into beta cells.

Once they were in the presence of glucose, the beta cells began to produce the hormone insulin - just like natural beta cells found in the pancreas.

The report, published in the journal Nature Communications, could hold promise for people with diabetes.

The researchers took immature stem cells and added a highly complex synthetic network of genes. This network was designed to recreate the key growth factors as the cells mature.

Lead researcher Martin Fussenegger, professor of biotechnology and bioengineering at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said it was essential to reproduce natural processes as closely as possible to make the beta cells function.

"The timing and the quantities of these growth factors are extremely important," he said, adding that until now, scientists have added various chemicals and proteins using pipettes to stem cells.

"It's not only really hard to add just the right quantities of these components at just the right time, it's also inefficient and impossible to scale up," he said. In contrast, the new process could successfully transform three out of four fatty tissue stem cells into beta cells.

However, more work is needed to get the beta cells to produce as much insulin as natural beta cells. And the cells have not yet been transplanted into a patient, he said.

But Prof Fussenegger said there may be no need to suppress the patient's immune system to make the beta cells work.