A Century-long Journey From the Discovery of Insulin to the Implantation of Stem Cell-derived Islets

Endocr Rev. 2023 Mar 4;44(2):222-253. doi: 10.1210/endrev/bnac021.


For the past century, insulin injections have saved millions of lives, but glycemic instability is still a persistent challenge for people with diabetes, leading to tremendous morbidity and premature mortality. Research in the field of islet transplantation has demonstrated that replacing insulin-producing β cells can restore euglycemia comparable to individuals without diabetes. However, a short supply of cadaveric islet donors, the technically challenging process of isolating islets, and the requirement for chronic immune suppression have impeded widespread clinical adoption. Rather than relying on cadaveric cells, pluripotent stem cells could serve as a virtually unlimited supply of insulin-producing β cells. Protocols have been developed that mimic the normal in vivo development of the human pancreas to generate pancreatic progenitor cells in vitro. Ongoing investigations have yielded progressively more mature β-like cells in vitro that produce insulin but do not yet fully mimic healthy mature β cells. Alongside development of differentiation protocols, other work has provided insight into potential implantation sites for stem cell-derived islet cells including the subcutaneous space, portal vein, and omentum. To optimize implanted cell survival and function, development of immune modulation therapies is ongoing, including selection of immunomodulatory medications and genetic modification of implanted cells to evade immune responses. Further, macroencapsulation or microencapsulation devices could be used to contain and/or immunoprotect implanted cells from the immune response including by using 3-dimensional bioprinting to facilitate the process. Remarkably, ongoing clinical trials have now yielded the first patient relying on differentiated stem cells rather than syringes as their insulin replacement therapy.

Keywords: diabetes; differentiation; encapsulation; islet; pancreatic progenitors; stem cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cadaver
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Humans
  • Insulin
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells*
  • Islets of Langerhans*
  • Stem Cells


  • Insulin

Grant support