JDRF researchers have shown for the first time that other pancreas cells can spontaneously re-program themselves to produce insulin without the need for complex genetic modification or surgical transplantation.
Under healthy conditions, beta cells regenerate slowly to respond to increased insulin requirements or to replace those lost by injury. In the case of type 1 diabetes however, the beta cells are destroyed faster than they can naturally regenerate.
For the last decade, researchers around the world have been working towards developing ways to either re-grow remaining beta cells, or transplant new beta cells that have been genetically modified to be invisible to the immune system.
In this case, the research team led by Dr Pedro Herrera at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, took a slightly different approach. They killed off all functioning beta cells in a special population of mice then gave the mice insulin therapy whilst using fluorescent dyes to track what happened to the cells in their pancreas over the next year.
What they found is that another group of pancreas cells – the alpha cells – spontaneously reprogrammed themselves over time to take over the role of insulin production.
Alpha cells reside next to beta cells in the pancreatic and normally produce glucagon – a hormone that has the opposite effect of insulin. In this case, researchers found that after they were reprogrammed, they produced both glucagon and insulin in quantities sufficient enough to maintain normal blood glucose levels.
Dr Dorota Pawlak, Head of Research Development for JDRF Australia says that this is an enormously exciting discovery for type 1 diabetes research.
“This research is the first to show that it is possible to spontaneously regenerate insulin-producing cells from other pancreatic tissue without having to resort to complex and potentially dangerous drug treatments.”
“The key difference between this study and others is all the beta cells were removed.”
“It is believed that a small number of beta cells still exist in the pancreas of people with type 1 diabetes, even after many years of living with the disease. This research showed simply removing all the beta cells in mice naturally triggered the re-programming process in the alpha cells.”
“Whilst it is important to remember that this research was conducted in mice and therefore is not immediately transferable to humans, it is a great step forward and will ultimately lead to the development of new therapies to reverse and cure type 1 diabetes.”