Cristina Nostro, senior scientist at McEwen Stem Cell Institute, University Health Network (UHN), is a pioneer in developing pancreatic beta cells (or insulin-producing cells) to be used in cell therapy.
Nostro begins with human stem cells and guides those cells through the process of becoming pancreatic cells that can produce insulin. The goal is to create a cell therapy that can be injected into a person with type 1 diabetes.
To bring these cells to an advanced stage of development, Nostro had to solve a major problem: Without blood flow, the injected cell therapy dies.
“Because of their [insulin secreting] function, beta cells need to be in close contact with the blood system. In fact, it is speculated that every beta cell is either connected with a vessel or, at most, is just two cells away from a vessel,” says Nostro, who is also an associate professor in physiology at U of T.
To address the lack of blood vessels when transplanting these cells, Nostro collaborates with UHN’s Sara Nunes Vasconcelos, a senior scientist at UHN’s Toronto General Research Institute and an associate professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at U of T. She is a vasculature, or blood vessel, expert. The Nunes Vasconcelos lab integrates blood vessels called microvessels into grafts containing the Nostro lab’s pancreatic cells.
In one study, Nostro and Vasconcelos tested their cells in animal models and found that cells that had microvessels were able to integrate with the animals’ blood vessels, allowing for the increased survival of the pancreatic cells long-term. The increased survival led to a higher number of functional insulin producing cells, which normalized blood sugar levels faster than cells transplanted without microvessels.
The work of the Nostro and Nunes Vasconcelos labs is the backbone of many Medicine by Design-funded type 1 diabetes projects, as their cells are integrated into projects that are aiming to solve other challenges such as how to ensure that beta cell therapy survives the immune system.