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Unleashing the power of stem cells: Research aims to transform skin cells into stem cells that can cure diabetes

Meri Firpo, Ph.D.

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 side effects.

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.

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