Researchers at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel have produced artificial beta cells from human kidney cells. Like their natural counterpart, the artificial cells measure glucose concentrations in the blood and produce enough insulin to lower the blood sugar level.
According to an Austrian newspaper, genetically engineering insulin-producing cells already exist, but they lack the ability to self-regulate. As a result, they cannot determine themselves when it is necessary to produce insulin.
The researchers in Basel have now overcome this problem by using a cell line based on human kidney cells, which they enhanced with a voltage-dependent calcium channel. As ETH Zurich explains, when the blood sugar level exceeds a certain threshold, it flips the voltage distribution at the membrane, causing the calcium channels to open. As calcium flows in, it triggers the cells’ built-in signalling cascade, leading to the production and secretion of insulin.
The newly created beta cells could one day replace the repeated measurement of blood glucose levels and the injection of insulin. However, the artificial beta cells are still a long way from reaching the market as they still have to undergo various clinical trials before they can be used in humans.
“If our cells clear all the humans, they could reach the market in 10 years,” estimates ETH professor Martin Fussenegger.