Scientists have created a new technique that may offer the chance of transplantation to more diabetics by taking cells from the pancreas and changing their function to produce insulin.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland say the new technique, tested in mice, could reduce waiting times for patients with type 1 diabetes who require islet cell transplants.

Islet cells are a group of cells in the pancreas that are made of beta cells, which produce insulin – the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. In people with type 1 diabetes, the islet cells are destroyed, rendering them unable to produce insulin.

When a patient with type 1 diabetes undergoes transplantation, islet cells are usually taken from two donor pancreases, as not enough cells can be taken from one donor. So a patient could be waiting for months before a transplant can take place.

However, this new treatment means that islet cells could be created in a laboratory from the pancreatic cells of one donor.

For the study, published in the journal Diabetes, the researchers took islet cells from the pancreas and were able to reprogram them using cell cultures. The cells were then tested in diabetic mice and were found to secrete insulin and normalize blood glucose levels.

“The aim of this study was to determine whether the human exocrine-enriched fraction from the islet isolation procedure could be reprogrammed to provide additional islet tissue for transplantation,” the researchers explain.

“Resultant cells were able to secrete insulin in response to glucose and on transplantation were able to normalize blood glucose levels in streptozotocin diabetic NOD/SCID mice.”

“In conclusion, reprogramming of human exocrine-enriched tissue can be best achieved using fresh material under conditions whereby epithelial-to-mesenchymal transitioning (EMT) is inhibited, rather than allowing the culture to expand as a mesenchymal monolayer.”

The researchers say that only one pancreas donation would be needed to ensure the successful transplantation of insulin-producing cells.

They add that the treatment would involve an islet cell transplant once a pancreas is available, and a second transplant would follow soon after, when enough pancreatic cells have been reprogrammed to produce insulin.

Professor Kevin Docherty of the University of Aberdeen and author of the study, says:

This is an example of how reprogramming – the ability to change one cell type into another – can have a huge impact on the development of cell-based therapy for diabetes and many other diseases.”

The researchers add that the outcome of this operation would also last longer than current procedures, as more cells would be transplanted.

John Casey, of the University of Edinburgh and lead clinician for the National Islet Transplant Programme in Scotland, says that there is a shortage of organ donors. He says the fact this transplant procedure needs two donors per patient does not help.

“Developing previously unusable cells to produce insulin means that fewer donors would be needed, which would make a huge difference to patients waiting for transplants operations,” he adds.

This is the latest in ongoing research looking to increase the ability and efficiency of islet cell transplants. Researchers at Northwestern Medicine recently transplanted islet cells from rats into mice, successfully conducting xenotransplantation that prevented rejection of the islets.