Type 1 diabetes destroys the cells in the pancreas which produce insulin. Scientists across the world believe regeneration — finding ways to restore or spike insulin production in Type 1D patients — is possible.
Recently, at the JDRF-sponsored Research Summit in Maryland, Juan Domínguez-Bendala, Ph.D., Director of Stem Cell Development for Translational Research at the Diabetes Research Institute, gave the keynote address on the “Promise of Stem Cells and Cell Therapies.” I was impressed that Dr. Dominguez-Bendala balanced the hype and controversy that normally surrounds Embryonic Stem Cell debate with the need to find multiple cell pathways that may lead to regeneration breakthroughs. I agree with this approach. Why put all of our “eggs” in one basket, pardon my pun. Let’s aggressively pursue all possibilities!
What follows is an edited transcript of DRI’s podcast with Dr. Dominguez-Bendala. The entire podcast is available on DRI’s site.
“Stem cells have two unique properties. One of them is that they keep dividing all the time so you can get them to expand in very significant numbers. So in a very short period of time you can get as many as you need to treat all the patients that you may want to treat. The other property that they have is that they are like a blank slate. They are naïve. They are simply waiting for instructions to become something. They are waiting to be programmed to become one tissue or another.”
Dominguez-Bendala says that until recently, most research has focused on embryonic stem cells. But now the DRI is studying other types – such as umbilical cord and amniotic stem cells. He says umbilical cord cells could hold more potential than originally thought – and that a specific sub-population of cord cells could, in fact, turn into insulin producing cells.
“If that was the case, then we have another source which is less controversial from many points of views um, than embryonic stem cells and is easily accessible. We can get them all the time from any delivery room in any hospital of the country.”
He says the challenge with cord cells is that they do not grow as quickly or as easily as embryonic stem cells. As for amniotic stem cells, the DRI is collaborating with Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University, who found these cells have the ability to become many different cell types.
“To date, we still don’t have evidence that they can become pancreatic, but what we know is that we can expand them exactly as we do expand embryonic stem cells so they are very easy to work with and they may have the potential to become pancreatic. So we are very excited about that possibility of using them, but this is brand new.”
As Dominguez-Bendala and his team pursue these exciting possibilities, he says he’s grateful he’s able to do it at the DRI.
“The uniqueness of the Institute is that we have a multidisciplinary team, we are not going to get a cure for type 1 diabetes only from one angle. We need to take care of the autoimmune response, we need to take care of the supply, we need to take care of all the intermediate steps from bench to bedside.”