European researchers have successfully converted pancreas cells into insulin-producing beta cells by altering a single gene.
In a major finding that adds to the prospects of regenerating insulin-producing tissue in people with type 1 diabetes, JDRF-funded researchers have shown that beta cells can be made using another type of pancreas cell by simply turning on a specific gene called PAX4.
PAX4 is a transcription factor – a gene responsible for reading and interpreting the genetic blueprint of DNA. Previous research led the scientists to suspect it was important for triggering the production of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas as mice without the gene die at birth with pancreases that look normal except they lack beta cells.
In this study, researchers turned on the PAX4 gene in the pancreas cells of a special strain of mice that have no beta cells in their pancreas. After the gene was turned on, they found the mice were able to produce insulin and possessed fully functional beta cells.
In addition to this discovery, they found that the regeneration process could continue with the body replacing the original converted cells which could then be also converted into beta cells as needed.
According to lead researcher Professor Mansouri from Max Planck Institute in Germany, these results conclusively demonstrate that the pancreas is capable of regeneration.
Whilst these results are still in very early stages, the research process is highly promising. Further research is needed to identify whether it can be translated to human tissue, as well as ensuring that the cell conversion can be kept under control.
To accelerate development of this important research area, JDRF is funding numerous top research groups from around the world to encourage further discovery in the area of beta cell regeneration and replacement.