A new study published in the journal Development identifies a method that can be used to grow miniature pancreas, which may be useful in the long term in fighting diabetes. These miniature human organs can also be to test new drugs effectively on human models rather than animal models.

Researchers at the Danish Stem Cell Centre developed a 3-D culture method that can allow pancreatic cells to expand and “take a three-dimensional shape enabling them to multiply more freely,” Professor Anne Grapin-Botton, author of the study, said in a press release. “It’s like a plant where you use effective fertilizer, think of the laboratory like a garden and the scientist being the gardener.”

“Our experiments reveal new aspects of pancreas development, such as a community effect by which small groups of cells better maintain progenitor properties and expand more efficiently than isolated cells, as well as the requirement for three-dimensionality,” the authors write in the summary accompanying the study.

The scientists discovered that pancreas cells were able to develop better in a gel in three-dimensions rather than being flattened at the bottom of a culture plate. “Under optimal conditions, the initial clusters of a few cells have proliferated into 40,000 cells within a week,” Grapin-Botton said in the press release. The types of cells used in this process are called progenitor cells — which are similar, but not the same as, stem cells. Stem cells are unlimited, replicating indefinitely. Progenitor cells, on the other hand, divide a limited number of times.

After the progenitor cells grow a lot, they transform into digestive enzyme-producing cells and self-organize into “branched pancreatic organoids that are amazingly similar to the pancreas,” Grapin-Botton explains. These special cells are also able to produce hormones like insulin, which is where the diabetes link comes in. The researchers believe that production of these types of cells could be used for diabetes therapy in the future in producing insulin-making cells for spare parts.

“We show that the pancreatic cells care not only about how you feed them but need to be grown in the right physical environment,” Grapin-Botton said. “We are now trying to adapt this method to human stem cells.”