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13 December 2022

Potential breakthrough for growing insulin-producing cells in the laboratory

Researchers have analysed the types of cells and genes involved in the development of beta cells in the pancreas responsible for making insulin.

insulin producing cells in vitro 780x450

Insulin is generated by beta cells – a type of cell found in the pancreas. There has been great interest in understanding how to artificially create beta cells in the laboratory as a therapy for diabetes and for experimental use. However, an incomplete understanding of how pancreatic cells develop in humans has stymied such efforts.

A new paper, published yesterday in Cell Metabolism, aims to bridge this gap with a spatial transcriptomic analysis of the developing human pancreas. This method analyses the RNA produced by the genome of cells which will be transcribed into proteins, and map where and when that activity takes place.

This research was led by Dr Oladapo Edward Olaniru, a postdoctoral researcher in Professor Shanta Persaud’s lab in the Department of Diabetes & Obesity in the School of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine & Sciences. The researchers identified the populations of cell progenitors – the cells from which pancreatic cells originate – that develop into pancreatic cells, as well as the genes that are responsible for the development of insulin-producing beta cells.

By integrating two novel technologies across multiple developmental time points, we present detailed analysis of the various cell types of the pancreas as they differentiate and mature from 8 to 20 weeks post-conception.

Dr Oladapo Edward Olaniru, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine & Sciences

The spatial analysis of developing pancreas cells also highlighted the role of Schwann cells, which are a specialised cell that supports a fatty insulating layer surrounding neurons. Schwann cells were found to be in the same area as pancreatic progenitor cells and an analysis of the connectivity between the two cell types suggested a connection via signalling in the L1CAM-EPHB2 gene pathway. Together, this suggests that Schwann cells support development of mature pancreatic cells, a hypothesis that the authors are now investigating.

All these results reveal the signalling processes and cell types involved in the development of human pancreatic cells. These findings can potentially help to produce better quality human beta cells in the laboratory that can be transplanted to treat diabetes.

Using data from the study, the authors have also created an interactive website called Human Pancreas Development, which is free for all to access. The authors anticipate that the research community will use this to support further research on human pancreas development.

In this story

Oladapo Edward Olaniru

Research Associate

Shanta  Persaud

Professor of Diabetes & Endocrinology