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Engineered mini stomachs may help treat type 1 diabetes

mini stomachs

Scientists have discovered a new cellular therapy for diabetes: lab grown mini stomachs. Researchers used stomach cells to create these mini stomachs that produce insulin when transplanted in mice.

Worldwide, the total number of people with diabetes is projected to rise from 171 million in 2000 to 366 million in 2030. The prevalence of diabetes is higher in men than women, but there are more women with diabetes than men.

In 2012, 29.1 million Americans, or 9.3% of the population, had diabetes. Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have type 1 diabetes. [Read more Eating Chocolate Daily May Reduce Risk Of Diabetes And Heart Disease]

Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes, results from the autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

In an attempt to find a cure, researchers, for decades have been trying to substitute beta cells – the insulin-making pancreatic cells that get lost in diabetes.

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The new study suggests that cells from the pylorus region – a region in the lower part of the stomach – have the greatest possibility.

mini stomachs

The study

To pinpoint the body tissue most compliant to reprogramming for producing insulin, senior study author Qiao Zhou, of Harvard University, and colleagues performed genetic engineering on mice to express 3 genes that can transform other cells into beta cells.

Pylorus region

Mr. Zhou said they searched all over the body of the mouse and were surprised to find that the cells located in the pylorus section of the stomach were most compliant to beta cell conversion. The tissue he said, seemed to be the finest starting substance.

The pylorus region connects the stomach with the small intestine. When the cells in this area were reprogrammed, they became most responsive to elevated glucose levels, producing insulin in order to normalize the rodents’ blood sugar.

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Testing the mini stomachs

To test these cells’ effectiveness, the research team killed the beta cells of 2 groups of mouse engineered to have diabetes. Of these groups, one possessed reprogrammed cells that acted like beta cells, while the other group, the control group, didn’t have reprogrammed pylorus cells.

Control mice, without tissue reprogramming, died within 8 weeks. However, reprogrammed cells of the experimental mice maintained glucose and insulin levels for as long as six months. That was the time span the rodents were tracked. This demonstrates that the pylorus cells that were reprogrammed reimbursed for not having beta cells.

mini stomachs

Another advantage of the pyloric stomach is that the stem cells in them renew the tissues in the gut regularly.

However, to get closer to a possible clinical therapy, Zhou and his colleagues had to take a different approach. When the mouse reached adulthood, the researchers turned on the 3 genes. But for clinical future, a transgenic human being isn’t possible, explains Zhou.

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So they collected the mice’s stomach tissue, engineered it in order to express the beta-cell reprogramming elements, and persuaded the cells to turn into a tiny sphere of a mini stomach that would produce insulin and at the same time reinvigorate itself with stem cells. Next, the researchers planted these mini stomachs in the layer that covers the inside part of the rodent’s abdominal cavity.

When the mice’s pancreatic cells were destroyed to see if the tiny stomachs would recoup, the researchers found that in 5 of the 22 mice, the glucose levels remained normal, and that was the success they expected.


Mr. Zhou explained why pylorus cells seem to be the most ideal cells to convert for producing insulin. Pylorus cells most closely resemble natural beta cells in the pancreas, so it is able to do a better job when it comes to regulating blood sugar, he said.

The findings were printed in the Cell Stem Cell.

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Salahuddin Ahmed is a freelance medical writer and blogger, who has been writing about medicine and health for more than a decade. A former New York transplant, he now lives in his native Dhaka. He received a Bachelor's degree from the University of Louisiana and a diploma on eTechnology from NIIT, Dhaka. A voracious eater, Salahuddin only dines at restaurants that offer free refills on rice.

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