A team of experts in California have successfully reprogrammed human skin cells to produce insulin, a hormone typically made by the pancreas which allows the body to use sugar from carbohydrates. The experiment could potentially help diabetic patients better manage their condition, experts said.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and the Gladstone Institutes converted human skin cells into new functional pancreatic cells.

The reprogrammed pancreatic cells were able to produce insulin in accordance to changes in sugar levels. When transplanted into mice, the new cells protected the animals from developing diabetes, experts said.

What Happens To The Cells?

Matthias Hebrok, co-senior author of the study and director of the UCSF's Diabetes Center, explained that he and his team took skin cells from the foreskin of male babies, which would have been otherwise discarded after circumcision.

The team reprogrammed those cells to turn into pancreatic beta cells by combining with molecules that make the cells go back to an earlier stage development, differentiate and multiply.

It's as if the scientists turned back the cells' clocks so they could resemble cells in the endoderm. The endoderm is a layer in the skin of a developing fetus from which most internal organs such as the pancreas are formed.

"The final step was the most unique--and the most difficult--as molecules had not previously been identified that could take reprogrammed cells the final step to functional pancreatic cells in a dish," said Saiyong Zhu, Hebrok's co-author.

The study, featured in the journal Nature Communications, also revealed breakthroughs in cellular programming technology, a method that enabled scientists to increase pancreatic cell production and create trillions of the new cells in a controlled and systematic manner.

Hebrok said their results demonstrate that the human skin cells can be used to generate functional pancreatic cells that behave similarly to human pancreatic cells.

The New Cells' Limitations

Hebrok and his colleagues published a 2014 study in which they transplanted insulin-producing skin cells into mice.

In the current study, the research team said their experiment is still in early stages of development as they have not yet placed the reprogrammed cells into the human body to see if they could produce insulin in that condition.

Aside from that, scientists said the new pancreatic cells are not completely similar to human pancreatic cells that normally produce the hormone.

Furthermore, as the team first thought they could help patients with Type 1 diabetes, they now saw that the reprogrammed cells' design could only help people with Type 2 diabetes.

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