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Sperm Stems Sugar

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Scientists have developed a novel cure for diabetes by which male patients can grow insulin-producing cells from their own testes.

Stem cells hatched from human testes may offer a cure for diabetes in the near future. A team of US researchers, including a young Indian American student, has shown that men suffering from Type-1 diabetes may be able to grow their insulin-producing cells from their testicular tissue.

The scientists, led by G. Ian Gallicano of the Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) in the US, have found that when these bio-engineered cells are grafted into diabetic mice, they function quite like beta-islet cells, the insulin-secreting cells normally found in the pancreas.

By decreasing the animals’ blood glucose levels, the human derived islet cells demonstrated their potential to counter diabetic hyperglycemia in humans, Gallicano told scientists at an annual meeting of the American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB) in Philadelphia yesterday.

Anirudh Saraswathula, an undergraduate student at Duke University, is a co-author of the work. Under a mentoring programme, Saraswathula — who was a student at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria — worked in Gallicano’s lab last year. His contribution to the work won Saraswathula — whose parents hail from Hyderabad — several prizes at national level innovation competitions in the US earlier this year.

The current work draws from an earlier breakthrough by GUMC researchers, including Gallicano. The scientists had shown that spermatogonial stem cells (SSCs) — that produce sperm — can be converted back into pluripotent embryonic-like stem cells that are capable of morphing into any cell type that a body needs, from brain neurons to pancreatic tissue. Embryonic stem cells — as the name suggests — are derived from human embryos. Their use in clinical application is mired in ethical issues.

“No stem cells, adult or embryonic, have been yet induced to secrete enough insulin to cure diabetes in humans, but we know SSCs have the potential to do what we want them to, and we know how to improve their yield,” Gallicano said in a release issued by the ASCB.

This could work in certain types of Type-2 diabetes as well, particularly in those patients whose beta cells are shut down. “Actually our hope is for it to serve as a cure, not just a treatment. Previous attempts at curing or treating diabetes have not quite panned out,” Gallicano told KnowHow.

Despite the rising tide of diabetes patients and dire predictions of worse to come, diabetes treatment has advanced little for decades beyond blood testing and insulin replacement. The only radically new approach to Type-I diabetes in recent years has been the Edmonton Protocol, named after the Canadian city where the technique was standardised, for transplanting insulin-producing beta-islet cells from deceased donors into the pancreas of diabetic patients who can no longer survive on insulin injections. Islet cell transplantation is plagued by problems of donor shortage and death of these cells in the body because of immune-mediated rejection.

Researchers have also cured diabetes in mice using induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells — adult stem cells that have been reprogrammed with other genes to behave like their embryonic counterparts. The technique, however, has its downside because it can give rise to tumours since the procedure requires the use of cancer genes.

However, to date, numerous barriers surround and prevent stem cell therapies from treating diabetes. With respect to embryonic stem cells, immune rejection, risk of teratoma (tumour) formation, and ethical dilemmas remain at the forefront of their delay in clinical application. Conventional adult stem cells have not lived up to their billing either as they are difficult to generate in the quantities necessary, and they, too, can face immune rejection, explains Gallicano.

As a result, the search has gone on to find a stem / progenitor cell that is deemed “suitable” by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the clinic. “In light of this, we believe our preliminary data using SSCs show significant promise in addressing these critical barriers. Our cells do not need external genes to become pluripotent. There are no ethical dilemmas we are aware of. Our cells do form teratomas — but it takes 10 times more cells to do so when compared to IPS or ES cells, and they secrete very high levels of insulin once we differentiate them,” says Gallicano. For the present experiment, the scientists used SSCs harvested from deceased human organ donors.

Another advantage of the procedure, according to Gallicano, is that there is no chance of immune rejection, a major bottleneck of most organ transplants. That’s because these beta-islet cells are obtained from the patient’s own testes.

“If pluripotent stem cells could be derived from a patient’s own testes, problems of organ shortage and immune rejection could be bypassed. This research holds great promise for Type-1 diabetes patients,” says Anoop Misra, head of the department of diabetes, obesity and metabolic diseases at Fortis Hospital, New Delhi.

The scientists are hopeful that a similar methodology may yield a potential cure for female diabetics as well. “The fundamental approach of transforming male gametes (male sperm cells) into pluripotent stem cells might be applicable to the female counterpart — that is, oocytes,” Gallicano observes.

Source: The Telegraph ( Kolkata, India)