Promising cure-focused research launched by diabetes and stem cell researcher Meri Firpo, Ph.D., is giving hope to millions of people with type 1 diabetes by bringing scientists closer to finding a cure.
Firpo, an assistant professor in the Stem Cell Institute and the
Schulze Diabetes Institute at the University of Minnesota, is taking
skin cells voluntarily donated by diabetic patients, culturing the
cells in the lab, wiping them clean and turning them back into blank
stem cells, and then reprogramming them into insulin-producing islet
cells. Her goal is to use these newly created cells to replace the
pancreatic cells destroyed in people with type 1 diabetes.
This research could have a major impact on transplantation in the future. “Currently, the lack of donors is a real limitation for transplantation,” Firpo says, “This theoretically provides unlimited transplantable cells.”
Finding an unlimited source of transplantable cells is one of three
approaches diabetes researchers at the University are exploring as a
cure for type 1 diabetes. Besides seeking an unlimited supply of islets
through both pig islets and stem cells, researchers are also looking
at alternative transplantation sites, as well as the next generation of
immunotherapies that will improve transplantation success and reduce
As part of this project, Firpo is currently transplanting the
reprogrammed human skin cells into diabetic mice. If the experiment
works, she will investigate whether the treatment can be translated to
humans. “We want to see if we can transplant [the reprogrammed cells]
into patients,” Firpo says. “One of the goals is to use patients’ own
cells to cure their disease.”
If mice trials with patient cells do not work, Firpo’s team has
plans to explore alternatives to find the best non-diabetic islet cell
donors. “We’re going to see what strategy will work best,” she says.
Firpo says that working with Bernhard Hering, M.D., scientific
director of the Schulze Diabetes Institute, has accelerated her
research. “The fact that we’re collaborating makes this research
progress much more quickly.”
Hering’s research team has successfully reversed diabetes in animals
using pig islet cells. His team is also developing a cell therapy to
offset immunosuppression issues related to xenotransplantation
(transplantation from one species to another).
Firpo and Hering’s collaborative work is supported in part by a $40 million pledge made to the University’s Schulze Diabetes Institute last December by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.