Georgetown University researchers report that they were able to coax cells that normally produce sperm to make insulin instead, and used them to temporarily cure Type 1 diabetes in mice.
The researchers used spermatogonial cells, extracted from the testicles of deceased human organ donors. In the testes, the function of these cells is to produce sperm, according to [developmental biologist Ian] Gallicano. However, outside of the testes the cells behave a lot like human eggs do, and there are certain genes that turn them on and make them behave like embryonic-like stem cells, he said.
“Once you take them out of their niche, the genes are primed and ready to go,” he explained.
Gallicano and his team chemically coaxed these sperm stem cells to become beta islet cells, the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Once the cells started creating insulin, the researchers transplanted them into mice with Type 1 diabetes, and saw the animals’ uncontrolled blood-sugar levels drop for about a week. (More on Time.com: Prescription for Type 2 Diabetes: Cardio Plus Weights)
The technique managed the disease for only a short period, and it is not clear that the same effect can be replicated in humans, but the researchers are hopeful.
[C]ells need to make much more insulin in order to cure diabetes in humans. In islet cells in the human pancreas, insulin accounts for about 10 percent of the proteins secreted by the cell. No stem cell from the testes or anywhere else has come close to making that amount of insulin, Gallicano says. He and his colleagues have developed a new way of programming insulin-producing cells and are getting closer to the goal of creating islet-like cells in which insulin accounts for 1 to 10 percent of the proteins in the cells.
Although testes-derived stem cells would be useful only for men, Gallicano thinks the tricks he’s developing could be adapted to other stem cells that could help women with diabetes too.