Wow…so have you heard about this result?
One goal of regenerative medicine is to instructively convert adult cells into other cell types for tissue repair and regeneration. Although isolated examples of adult cell reprogramming are known, there is no general understanding of how to turn one cell type into another in a controlled manner. Here, using a strategy of re-expressing key developmental regulators in vivo, we identify a specific combination of three transcription factors (Ngn3 (also known as Neurog3) Pdx1 and Mafa) that reprograms differentiated pancreatic exocrine cells in adult mice into cells that closely resemble β-cells. The induced β-cells are indistinguishable from endogenous islet β-cells in size, shape and ultrastructure. They express genes essential for β-cell function and can ameliorate hyperglycaemia by remodelling local vasculature and secreting insulin. This study provides an example of cellular reprogramming using defined factors in an adult organ and suggests a general paradigm for directing cell reprogramming without reversion to a pluripotent stem cell state.
This is a big deal, I think, so allow me to translate.
First, a little caveat: this is a recent result published in Nature, and it is basic science, not clinical work. Before you start thinking it’s a new treatment for diabetes, I have to dash a little cold water on you and warn you that this has a long, long way to go before it can be applied to humans…but it does open the door to some future strategies that might be applied.
The pancreas is a fairly complicated organ. It’s made up of a variety of different cells that we can toss into a couple of different classes. There are garden variety support cells — mesenchyme, connective tissue, components of the circulatory system, and the ductwork of the organ — that provide building services for the other cell types. Then there are exocrine cells, cells that produce quantities of important substances that are piped directly into the digestive tract via ducts. Among the most important materials exported by this route are bicarbonate buffers to neutralize stomach acids and enzymes like amylase to digest sugars. Finally, the class of cells that most people are familiar with, because they are the subject of a common disease, are the endocrine cells. These are cells that generate hormonal signals that are secreted into the blood stream, and the most familiar of these are the beta (β) cells, which are organized into clumps called islets and which secrete insulin…and if something goes awry with the β cells, the resulting disease is called diabetes.
What the researchers did was identify a small subset of transcription factors, the genes Ngn3, Pdx1 and Mafa, that are sufficient to switch on the insulin production genes in non-insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. They can turn exocrine cells into β cells, which produce insulin, and these cells reduce the effects of diabetes.
The way they did this was to insert the transcription factors (and a gene that makes a glowing protein, GFP, as a marker) into adenoviruses, and then inject the virus directly into the pancreases of genetically immunodeficient (to reduce immune response complications) adult mice. The viruses infected a subset of the pancreatic cells, preferentially the exocrine cells, and started pumping out the transcription factors. As is common in these kinds of genetic engineering experiments, the use of viral transfection is perhaps the scariest part of the story; viruses aren’t trivial to keep in check. However, they report that they also did later PCR tests of adjacent tissues and found no evidence that the virus spread beyond the target organ; they also found that inducing the expression of the 3 transcription factors in other kinds of cells, like muscle, seems to do nothing. These genes are only potent in pancreatic cells that are already primed to be competent to respond to the signals generated by the transcription factors.
The virus is also not needed for long term maintenance of these cells. The virus in the pancreas, as determined by PCR, is cleared away after about 2 months. It seems that all it takes is a brief jolt of expression of Ngn3, Pdx1 and Mafa to switch susceptible cells into the β cell state, and that the developmental program is then self-sustaining.
The authors also made diabetic mice by injecting them with streptozotocin, which kills islet β cells, and then gave them the viral cocktail injection. It did not cure their diabetes, but it did give them significantly greater glucose tolerance, and they did measure increased blood insulin levels. One reason the treatment may not be as effective as it could be is that it simply converts random, scattered exocrine cells into single β cells that are not organized into the islets of the normal pancreas.
A lot of attention has been paid to embryonic stem cell and adult stem cell technologies, and those are both important and provide research and treatment opportunities that must not be neglected, but this is a third way: mastering the developmental control genes of the cell so that we can reprogram mature cells into any cell type we need. While injecting a person’s pancreas with a collection of viruses to rebuild missing cell types might be a little hazardous and crude, there may come a day when we can collect a few cells from an individual by a scraping or biopsy, grow them in a dish to get enough, tickle their transcription factors to cause them to differentiate into the cell, tissue, or organ type we want, and transplant the final, immunocompatible product right back into the patient.
This is the direction developmental medicine can take us — I hope you’re all ready to support it.
Zhou Q, Brown J, Kanarek A, Rajagopa J, Melton DA (2008) In vivo reprogramming of adult pancreatic exocrine cells to β-cells. Nature Aug 27. [Epub ahead of print].