Cellular differentiation is the process by which stem cells and other progenitor cells divide to form specialized cell populations - of which there are a great many different types in the body. Much of stem cell research to date has been focused on finding out how to first obtain stem cells and then differentiate them to form specific desired types of specialized cell. This has been a challenging process, but advances in biotechnology are making it easier and less costly as the years go by.
Cells are programmable machinery; it seems to be the case that any given type of cell holds the potential to produce any other type of cell, if researchers just understood the right chemical and genetic cues and instructions. Thus in addition to the work of reverting specialized cells into stem cells, and differentiating stem cells into desired specialized cells, there is also the possibility of achieving transdifferentiation - converting one type of cell directly into another without passing through a stem cell stage.
In recently reported research, researchers are making inroads in converting various types of cell in the pancreas - which offers the possibility of a fairly direct path towards providing new beta cells to diabetes patients:
While the current standard of treatment for diabetes - insulin therapy - helps patients maintain sugar levels, it isn't perfect, and many patients remain at high risk of developing a variety of medical complications. Replenishing lost beta cells could serve as a more permanent solution, both for those who have lost such cells due to an immune assault (Type 1 diabetes) and those who acquire diabetes later in life due to insulin resistance (Type 2).
"Our work shows that beta cells and related endocrine cells can easily be converted into each other," said study co-author Dr. Anil Bhushan, an associate professor of medicine in the endocrinology division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and in the UCLA Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology.
It had long been assumed that the identity of cells was "locked" into place and that they could not be switched into other cell types. But recent studies have shown that some types of cells can be coaxed into changing into others - findings that have intensified interest in understanding the mechanisms that maintain beta cell identity.
This is as much the age of controlling cells as it is the age of biotechnology. Researchers are presently building the foundation for complete control over the component machinery of the human body. Along the way to that goal lies the production of ever more effective general repair kits for all forms of damage that originate in missing or damaged cell populations - including one portion of aging itself.