New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Investigator,
Adjunct Associate Research Scientist, Columbia University
Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center
In the fall of 2011, in the scientific journal, Nature, Dieter Egli, PhD, and his team at the New York Stem Cell Foundation and Columbia’s Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, announced that they had discovered a new way to create embryonic stem cells using patient-specific DNA. It was, and continues to be, a giant step forward in stem cell technology. TIME Magazine called it “the #1 medical breakthrough” of the year. Scientists have long thought that patient-specific stem cells hold the answers to the cure for a long list of diseases including heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and type 1 diabetes, which is the thrust of Dr. Egli’s research.
Today, using the skin cells of people with type 1 diabetes—his research subjects are all enthusiastic patients at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center—Dr. Egli and his team are well on their way to creating viable, patient-specific, insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells that will one day be delivered back to the patient for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.
Q. Can you help us understand your stem cell technique?
A. We used a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—the same technique used to create Dolly the sheep in 1996. It fuses a human skin cell nucleus with a human egg cell. We were able to demonstrate, for the first time, that you can walk back a cell’s instructions and chemically nudge them in a variety of different directions—including back to an embryonic state to generate stem cells. Until now, scientists have not been able to reprogram adult skin cells successfully.
Q. Will you recap the results of this research so far?
A. We are in the very early stages, but we have already advanced considerably. We can go from skin cells to stem cells to pancreatic beta cells that are secreting insulin in a petri dish. It’s really quite amazing. We can transform skin cells, from the patients whose own pancreases haven’t produced insulin in years—into insulin producing beta cells. Patients can look forward to this as an eventual treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Q. Where does your research stand?
A. The cells that we have made are not yet for therapeutic use, so clearly there is a lot more work to be done. But now we know how to turn an adult skin cell into a stem cell. Stem cells are still one of the great hopes of medicine, because they have the potential to cure diseases that can only be cared for right now.
Q. Tell us about the role the Berrie Center has in your research.
A. The Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center is central to my research. The patients are the pillars of this project, as they provide the skin cells that make this research possible. I work closely with Matthew Freeby, MD, an adult endocrinologist at the Center and the Hunter Eastman Scholar of Translational Diabetes Research. It’s important to note that stem cell research in particular depends on forward-thinking philanthropy that will help one day bring our work in the laboratory back to patients in the clinic. A single, 3 mm skin biopsy will provide an indefinite supply of cells for my research.
I am also very fortunate to have the expertise and resources of Columbia University’s research community, especially Rudy Leibel, MD, and Robin Goland, MD, Co-Directors of the Berrie Center, who in 2009, created the cell bank for the purpose of advancing diabetes research.