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Flab could hold the answer to curing diabetes after scientists discovered that stem cells harvested from excess body fat could be programmed to produce insulin.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain suffer from diabetes, an auto-immune disease which occurs when the immune system starts attacking insulin–producing beta cells which remove excess sugar from the blood

The obesity crisis has also led to many more people developing Type 2 diabetes.

Now scientists in Switzerland have shown it is possible to take stem cells from the body fat of a 50-year-old man and coax them turning into insulin-making beta cells by adding new genetic code.

The code triggers the same processes that would take place in the pancreas –  where beta cells are produced – and takes just four days to complete.

The next step would be to transplant the beta cells back into a diabetic patient, where it is hoped they will begin to clear out sugar as normal. Researchers are keen to begin human trials within as little as five years. If successful it could end the need for daily injections of insulin.

“Most people have an overabundance of fat from which these stem cells can be harvested,” said lead researcher Martin Fussenegger, Professor of Biotechnology and Bioengineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“We used liposuction to remove the fat which holds quite a lot of stem cells, do you don’t actually need to take that much.”

Beta cell transplants are already used to treat diabetics but they usually require drugs to suppress the immune system to prevent rejection.

However because the new lab grown cells would be derived from the patient’s own stem cells there would be no need for debilitating immunosuppressant drugs, which increase the risk of infection.

“With our beta cells, there would likely be no need for this action, since we can make them using endogenous cell material taken from the patient’s own body,” added Prof Fussenegger.

“This is why our work is of such interest in the treatment of diabetes.”

To make the beta cells, researchers took the fat stem cells and added genetic ‘software’ which programmed the stem cells to manufacture three growth proteins needed to form mature insulin-producing cells.

Concentrations of those proteins rise and fall throughout the process of becoming a specialist cell so it is difficult to recreate the exact mixture by using chemicals in a lab. One of the proteins for example, does not appear until the final day of maturation.

So the genetic code not only instructed the creation of the proteins but also the specific time when they should appear and the concentration.

It is the first time that scientists have succeeded in reproducing the entire natural process, from stem cell to beta cell.

The lab grown beta cells not only look very similar to their natural counterparts – both kinds contain dark spots known as granules, which store insulin – but they also function in a similar way.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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