A*STAR partners with startup to create diabetes cell therapies tailored to Asian patients

By Nick Paul Taylor, The Science Advisory Board contributing writer

March 22, 2023 -- BetaLife has acquired the rights to human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology from Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) for use in the treatment of diabetes.

Adrian Teo, principal investigator of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology at A*STAR, co-founded BetaLife to build on his research into the use of cell therapies to treat diabetes. BetaLife is developing pancreatic islet cells derived from human iPSCs to enable people with diabetes to produce their own insulin.

To support its work, Singapore-based BetaLife has acquired the rights to A*STAR technology that enables the generation of iPSCs. Using human iPSCs, BetaLife can in theory generate an unlimited supply of cells that secrete insulin for transplantation into people with types 1 and 2 diabetes. Transplanting islet-like cells could address the root cause of diabetes and free patients from the need to inject insulin or wear pumps that administer the hormone.

A*STAR will support BetaLife's ambitions as part of a research collaboration designed to generate banks of human iPSCs that capture the genetic diversity of Asian ethnicities and develop pancreatic islet cells based on the resource. The collaboration brings together A*STAR's expertise in stem cells and diabetes and BetaLife's infrastructure and off-the-shelf cell therapy platforms.

"This collaboration paves the way for a proof-of-concept that islet cell-based therapy can help treat diabetes. Our efforts to extend the excellent science from A*STAR will enable BetaLife to further develop the cells for future human trials," Dr Lim Kah Meng, managing director of BetaLife, said in a statement.

Using islet-like cells derived from human iPSCs to treat diabetes raises multiple potential issues, as BetaLife co-founder Teo noted in a paper published in the journal Med in 2021. At the time, Teo and the co-authors saw "tumorigenic potential, functional immaturity and achieving full compliance with current good manufacturing practice regulations" as challenges to the use of the cells. The scientists also noted that the immaturity of the cells meant that a higher mass of cells or more infusions would be needed.

Multiple groups are trying to overcome the barriers to the use of iPSC-derived treatments and other cell therapies for diabetes. U.S.-based biotech company Vertex Pharmaceuticals has a pancreatic islet cell replacement therapy in clinical development, although its progress was slowed by a temporary pause by the regulator last year. Vertex, which acquired its first diabetes cell therapy candidate through a $950 million buyout, added another prospect to its pipeline last year through a $320 million takeover.

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