The possibility of using human embryonic stem (hES) cell-derived β cells as an alternative to cadaveric islets for the treatment of type 1 diabetes is now widely acknowledged. However, current differentiation methods consistently fail to generate meaningful numbers of mature, functional β cells. In order to address this issue, we set out to explore the role of oxygen modulation in the maturation of pancreatic progenitor (PP) cells differentiated from hES cells. We have previously determined that oxygenation is a powerful driver of murine PP differentiation along the endocrine lineage of the pancreas. We hypothesized that targeting physiological oxygen partial pressure (pO2) levels seen in mature islets would help the differentiation of PP cells along the β-cell lineage. This hypothesis was tested both in vivo (by exposing PP-transplanted immunodeficient mice to a daily hyperbaric oxygen regimen) and in vitro (by allowing PP cells to mature in a perfluorocarbon-based culture device designed to carefully adjust pO2 to a desired range). Our results show that oxygen modulation does indeed contribute to enhanced maturation of PP cells, as evidenced by improved engraftment, segregation of α and β cells, body weight maintenance, and rate of diabetes reversal in vivo, and by elevated expression of pancreatic endocrine makers, β-cell differentiation yield, and insulin production in vitro. Our studies confirm the importance of oxygen modulation as a key variable to consider in the design of β-cell differentiation protocols and open the door to future strategies for the transplantation of fully mature β cells.
Keywords: Cell transplantation; Cellular therapy; Developmental biology; Diabetes; Embryonic stem cells; Microenvironment; Pancreas; Pancreatic differentiation.