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Feb 22,2008
San Diego company's stem cells treat diabetes in mice
by Terri Somers

SAN DIEGO - A tiny San Diego biotechnology company has coaxed human embryonic stem cells to evolve into cells that produce insulin to control blood sugar when injected into mice with diabetes, according to a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The study shows that Novocell, a privately held company with 37 employees, is moving one step closer to its goal of creating a human embryonic stem cell therapy for diabetes.

"I think this validates human embryonic stem cells as something that can be very valuable and used to produce islet-like cells for diabetes treatment, a very specific, very differentiated cell type that would be very difficult to get otherwise," said Emmanuel Baetge, Novocell's chief scientist and the senior author of the study.

Novocell is one of a handful of companies delving into the controversial world of human embryonic stem cells in the hopes of developing therapies to treat a number of diseases. Embryonic stem cells, which exist just days after fertilization, evolve into the more than 200 different cell types in the body. But the field is controversial because it requires the destruction of a days-old human embryo.

Novocell uses stem cells derived from embryos left over from the in-vitro fertilization process and no longer wanted by people attempting to have children.

In November 2001, when Baetge joined the company, it had not made even one stem cell line from embryonic stem cells. So Baetge and his team started from scratch.

In 2005, the team published a study showing they could coax human embryonic stem cells to become endoderm cells, a lineage of cells that eventually turn into islet cells and other cell types.

In 2006, the team showed it could develop these cells further into fetal endocrine cells.

But then they had trouble trying to get them to evolve further into the islet cells, Baetge said. So, they backed up the process to one step before the development of endocrine cells, he said.

They took those cells, the progenitors of the endocrine cells, and injected them into mice and eventually got the insulin-producing cells.

There is something in the living organism that signals these cells to develop into islet cells, Baetge said.

The cells were injected into 105 mice. Some were chemically induced to have diabetes and others were not. Ninety-two percent of the animals made functional islet cells, a very high percentage of success, Baetge said.

"We've finally gotten to a point where we can say that we can make this function well and can now work on how this can be turned into a product," Baetge said.

At least 170 million people globally have diabetes, with numbers expected to double by 2030. Five percent to 10 percent have Type 1 diabetes, caused when the immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

In both Types 1 and 2 diabetes, the body cannot use insulin properly or make enough of it to regulate glucose in the blood. Patients must monitor their blood sugar and often must take insulin as needed.

A Canadian team is having some success transplanting purified islet cells harvested from cadavers into diabetics. But that supply of islet cells is limited.

Novocell's plan is to use human embryonic stem cells to create a plentiful and ongoing pool of cells that can be created under standardized processes and then injected into humans. The company's technology involves a process of encapsulating they cells in a polymer that would make them invisible to the immune system, and therefore avoid the need for recipients to take immune-suppression drugs to prevent rejection of the cells.

The encapsulation procedure was not used on the cells injected into the mice for this study. But that process is now under way in further mice studies at the company, Baetge said.

Meanwhile, the company is also working on a process of purifying the cells before transplantation, he said.

Novocell then plans to begin meeting with the Food and Drug Administration to determine its pathway toward approval to begin clinical trials using its cells, he said.

"Obviously that kind of research is expensive and requires probably more financial resources than Novocell's current shareholder base has the ability to provide," said Chief Executive Alan Lewis.

In the next 12 months, Novocell is hoping to find a corporate partner with those resources as well as experience in manufacturing and commercialization to help move its product closer to market, Lewis said.
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Related news
Burnham team is successful in stem cell study by Terri Somers posted on Mar 12,2007

Putting science back in public policy by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch posted on Mar 16,2009

Sweeping stem cell patents rejected by Terri Somers - CNS posted on Apr 03,2007

Scientists re-grow dental enamel from cultured cells by Bend_Weekly_News_Sources posted on Mar 23,2007

Monkey embryos reported cloned by Bend_Weekly_News_Sources posted on Nov 16,2007

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  • The controversy boils down to the fact the human embryo is a human being. This is a scientific fact and therefore not debatable. To kill one human being to help another is immoral. Life is supposedly protected in the Declaration of Independence where life is stated to be inalienable, which means cannot be legislated against. Yet there are no laws in place to protect the most innocent of all human life the human embryo. There are other nondestructive areas of stem cell research that does not require the destruction of an embryo. Just because there are embryos left over from in vitro procedures does not justify killing them for research. Unfortunately, you can't hug an embryo and there are those whose understanding is limited by their experience. And there are those whose greed blinds them to truth. We loyal Americans draw the line when our pursuit of making a living becomes immoral. We do not subscribe to the Communist philosophy that the end justifies the means. And we expect American researchers to do the same. To stand up for every American human being is what being American is all about.
  • (Posted on February 22, 2008, 7:40 am Janet Creighton)

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