OHSU Researchers Are First to Develop Monkey Stem Cells That Could Lead to a Treatment for Diabetes

06/20/02    Portland, Ore.

Monkey cells will help scientists determine the effectiveness and safety of insulin-producing stem cells

More than 17 million Americans suffer from diabetes. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University are the first to develop embryonic stem cells from monkeys that produce and release insulin. They hope this discovery will lead to the development of a monkey model of stem cell transplantation, resulting in an innovative treatment for this life-threatening disorder. The ultimate goal is for stem cells to produce and release insulin when transplanted into patients with diabetes. The principal investigator, Linda Lester, M.D., will present the study at ENDO 2002, the 84th Annual Meeting of The Endocrine Society in San Francisco, and will be featured at the society's press conference today at 2:30 p.m.

"Stem cells can be grown and made to release insulin in the laboratory. These cells could replace cells that are unable to produce insulin, which has been a goal for diabetes researchers for the last century. Replacing these failing cells is as close to a cure for diabetes as we will get right now," said Lester, principal investigator and assistant professor of medicine (endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition) in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Diabetes is a disorder of the carbohydrate metabolism in which the body can't use sugars due to a lack of, or resistance to, insulin. Previous stem cell transplantation studies have shown mice stem cells to be effective in treating mice with diabetes by producing and releasing insulin. But primate stem cells, both monkey and human, have been much more difficult to grow. Now OHSU researchers Lester, Brian Nauert, Ph.D., and collaborators Don Wolf, Ph.D., and Hung-Chih Kuo, Ph.D., are the first to develop monkey stem cells that produce and release insulin. The results of this study titled "Induction of Insulin Production from Non-Human Primate Embryonic Stem Cellsî will be presented at the ENDO 2002 meeting.

Stem cells have the unique ability to become any kind of cell in the body. So stem cells grown into insulin-producing cells could be transplanted into a diabetic patient, providing the patient with cells that produce enough insulin to cure the diabetes. "Stem cells offer two important advantages: we can grow as many of them as needed and, if we identify a patient's own stem cells, we can reduce the need for lifelong antirejection medication following transplantation," said Lester.

The current research was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Diabetes Association. The researchers are actively involved in obtaining additional funding to pursue their goal of a primate model of stem cell transplantation for the treatment of diabetes. The final step will be to determine whether embryonic-derived stem cells transplanted in a monkey can effectively and safely produce insulin in a diabetic monkey. "We want to show that the transplantation of stem cells can be safe and effective in a primate model closely resembling humans. This is a critical step before stem cell therapy can be used in patients with diabetes," said Lester.

###