Fundamentally, they introduced three transcription factors (proteins that cause, or prevent, a gene's transcription) into non-beta cells in the pancreas, by means of a virus. These transcription factors transformed the cells into insulin-producing ones, which reduced the effects of diabetes. It really is fantastic news, since this offers the possibility of an eventual cure for this common condition.
There are a number of caveats and downsides, however:
- This result was done on mice, not humans. It will take years before any human trials are underway, and years more before it will become viable as a treatment.
- The transcription factors were introduced by means of an adenovirus. There are well-known problems with this method, including tumor genesis and controlling the damn virus, even if you've knocked out its disease-causing genes. What was promising, though, was that the researchers showed that the virus didn't spread beyond the pancreas, and that it was cleared within about two months. (Fortunately the transformed cells stayed transformed once the virus was eliminated.)
- The above modification didn't completely cure the diabetes, it just improved it. More work will have to be done to rectify this.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderfully promising development. The best blog post on the matter (and the place where I got most of the above info!) is this post over at P.Z. Myers' blog, Pharyngula.
A lot of attention has been paid to embryonic stem cell and adult stem cell technologies, and those are both important and provide research and treatment opportunities that must not be neglected, but this is a third way: mastering the developmental control genes of the cell so that we can reprogram mature cells into any cell type we need. While injecting a person's pancreas with a collection of viruses to rebuild missing cell types might be a little hazardous and crude, there may come a day when we can collect a few cells from an individual by a scraping or biopsy, grow them in a dish to get enough, tickle their transcription factors to cause them to differentiate into the cell, tissue, or organ type we want, and transplant the final, immunocompatible product right back into the patient.
This is the direction developmental medicine can take us — I hope you're all ready to support it.
Count me in.