In a thoughtful review, Meng Liu and Zhong Chao Han discuss the reasons that mesenchymal stem cells derived from bone marrow, fat, and fetal tissue are attractive candidates for improving type 1 diabetes therapy. Though type 1 diabetes is often treated with insulin replacement therapy, transplanting islet cells from the pancreas has become a means for curing the disease. Nonetheless, islet transplantation has a number of limitations, most of which occur as a result of isolating the islet cells from the pancreas. While isolated, the cells are vulnerable to damage and death, and as a result, effective therapy often requires a series of transplants.
Because mesenchymal stem cells possess a number of important characteristics that are lost or absent in islet cells, scientists have posited that they may have potential in the treatment of diabetes. For instance, immune system reactions to transplants often make transplants unsuccessful. However, mesenchymal stem cells modulate the immune system such that they can minimize these immune reactions. Mesenchymal stem cells are also able to differentiate into a variety of cell lineages and to promote the development of new blood vessels. These features make mesenchymal stem cells appealing from the general perspective of transplantation, where the generation of new cells and new cell networks within tissue is critical.
Given that mesenchymal stem cells appear to be a promising candidate for diabetes therapy, researchers have pondered how best to leverage the potential of these stem cells for the specific purpose of reinstating insulin function in type 1 diabetics. According to this review, one leading notion is to generate insulin-producing cells from mesenchymal stem cells.
Though there appear to be a number of specific ways to achieve insulin-producing cells from mesenchymal stem cells, the researchers point to the technical challenges associated with these methods but remain optimistic about the potential to do so. By laying the conceptual groundwork for using mesenchymal stem cells for type 1 diabetes treatment, Liu and Chao pave the way for future researchers to develop specific research protocols for improving our understanding of how mesenchymal stem cells can be used in the development of these important therapies.