Altering non-insulin producing cells in the pancreas could cure diabetes

by Barbara Hewitt on May 10, 2017

Altering cells in the pancreas to get them to secrete insulin is being hailed as one of the best potential cures for type 1 diabetes and may also be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes.

Scientists in the United States have successfully cured mice of diabetes without any side effects by altering non-insulin producing cells and getting them to regulate blood sugar levels.

How Does Insulin Work

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The researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Centre are confident that the approach could work in humans and hope to undertake clinical trials in three years.

‘We cured mice for one year without any side effects. That’s never been seen. But it’s a mouse model, so caution is needed. We want to bring this to large animals that are closer to humans in physiology of the endocrine system,’ said Dr. Bruno Doiron, assistant professor of medicine at UT Health.

Ralph DeFronzo, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Diabetes at UT Health, explained that the pancreas has many other cell types besides beta cells, and the new approach is to alter these cells so that they start to secrete insulin, but only in response to glucose, making them work just like beta cells.

Insulin, which lowers blood sugar, is only made by beta cells. In type 1 diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by the immune system and the person has no insulin. In type 2 diabetes, beta cells fail and insulin decreases. In type 2 diabetes the body also doesn’t use insulin efficiently.

The researchers have been using a technique called gene transfer. A virus is used as a vector, or carrier, to introduce selected genes into the pancreas. These genes become incorporated and cause digestive enzymes and other cell types to make insulin.

Unlike beta cells, which the body rejects in type 1 diabetes, the other cell populations of the pancreas co-exist with the body’s immune defences. ‘If a type 1 diabetic has been living with these cells for 30, 40 or 50 years, and all we’re getting them to do is secrete insulin, we expect there to be no adverse immune response,’ DeFronzo said.

He pointed out that the therapy precisely regulates blood sugar in mice. This could be a major advance over traditional insulin therapy and some diabetes medications that drop blood sugar too low if not closely monitored.

‘A major problem we have in the field of type 1 diabetes is hypoglycaemia. The gene transfer we propose is remarkable because the altered cells match the characteristics of beta cells. Insulin is only released in response to glucose,’ Doiron said.

‘People don’t have symptoms of diabetes until they have lost at least 80% of their beta cells. We don’t need to replicate all of the insulin making function of beta cells. Only 20% restoration of this capacity is sufficient for a cure of type 1,’ he added.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the DiabetesForum.com Community and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please see your doctor before making any changes to your diabetes management plan.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivan May 10, 2017 at 12:44 pm

When are they going to try this in humans?

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mfdfadmin May 11, 2017 at 11:36 am

According to the researchers, they are hoping to test on humans in three years.

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