New weapon against Diabetes

Researchers led by ETH Professor Martin Fussenegger in the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) at Basel have generated artificial beta cells using a simple engineering approach.

The artificial beta cells can do everything that normal ones perform: they measure the sugar concentration in the blood vessels and produce enough insulin to effectively lower the blood sugar level. The ETH researchers introduced their advancement from the most recent edition of the journal Science.

Previous procedures were based on stem cells, and also the scientists allowed to grow into beta cells by adding growth factors or by integrating networks.

Minor reprogramming of HEK cells

For their approach, a mobile line was utilized by the ETH researchers based on HEK cells, human kidney cells. The researchers utilized the organic sugar transport proteins and potassium channels . They enhanced these with a calcium station and a receptor for the generation of GLP-1 and insulin, a hormone involved in the regulation of the blood sugar level.

Voltage switch causes insulin production

In the beta cells that are synthetic, the cells HEK cells’ sugar transport protein absorbs sugar from the bloodstream into the cell’s interior. After the blood sugar level exceeds a certain threshold, then the potassium channels close. This flips the supply in the membrane. As calcium flows in, it triggers the HEK cells’ signalling cascade, leading to the creation and secretion of GLP-1 or insulin.

The initial tests of the artificial beta cells from diabetic mice demonstrated the cells to be extremely successful: “They functioned better and for much longer than any remedy achieved anywhere in the world so far,” states Fussenegger. When implanted into diabetic mice, the HEK cells that were modified functioned reliably for 3 weeks, producing amounts.

In creating the artificial cells, the researchers had the support of a computer model created by researchers working under Jörg Stelling, another professor at ETH Zurich’s Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE). The model enables predictions to be made of cell behaviour, which is confirmed. “The data from the experiments and the values calculated with the models were almost identical,” states Fussenegger.

He and his group have been operating on biotechnology-based options for diabetes therapy for quite a while. They unveiled cells that had been grown from a person’s fatty tissue. This technique is expensive, however, as the cells need to be produced individually for each individual. As the machine is suitable for all diabetics the solution would be cheaper.

Market-readiness has been a long way away

It remains uncertain when these synthetic beta cells will reach the marketplace. They have to undergo clinical trials before they can be utilized in people. Trials of the kind are expensive and often several years. “If our cells clear all of the hurdles, they could reach the market in ten years,” the ETH professor quotes.

Diabetes is becoming the modern day scourge of humanity. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that over 640 million people will suffer from diabetes. Half a million people are influenced in Switzerland with 40,000 of these suffering from type 1 diabetes, the kind in which the immune system of the body entirely destroys the beta cells.

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