Scientists in the United States have found immature beta cells in the pancreas which they hope could be turned into insulin producing beta cells and eventually a cure for diabetes.
Those with type 1 diabetes cannot control blood glucose levels because the insulin producing beta cells in the pancreas have died and are not replaced but now a team at the University of California have found a potential way of regenerating the cells.
Their work gives an insight into the mechanism behind a healthy metabolism and diabetes and they believe that a cure for diabetes will come from understanding the basics. In particular they hope that these immature cells have more potential than trying to make the pancreas grow new beta cells.
According to Mark Huising, assistant professor of neurobiology, physiology and behaviour in the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, the newly discovered cells can make insulin, but don’t have the receptors to detect glucose, so they can’t function as a full beta cell.
However, Huising’s team was able to observe alpha cells in the islet turn into immature beta cells and then mature into real beta cells. He explained that it is very exciting as the new immature beta cell wasn’t known about before.
He hopes that understanding how these cells mature into functioning beta cells could help in developing stem cell therapies for diabetes. Stem cells have the potential to develop into a wide range of other cells. So far, attempts to grow real beta cells from stem cells have made great strides, but these efforts have not yet reached their full potential because they get hung up at an earlier immature stage.
This basic understanding of cells in the islets could also help in understanding type 2 diabetes, where beta cells do not die but become inactive and no longer secrete or release insulin.
The new immature cells were discovered when studying the islets of Langerhans and the researchers believe they are in a transitional stage changing from alpha cells into beta cells. A special microenvironment on the edge of the islets of Langerhans appears to create just the right conditions to facilitate this change.
Dr Huising hopes that it could be possible to recreate the conditions of the area around the islets of Langerhans to make alpha cells turn into beta cells to replace those lost in people with type 1 diabetes, or the conditions could be recreated in the laboratory to make stem cells turn into insulin producing beta cells for use in replacement treatments.
The research team is now trying to find out if the special microenvironment exists in people who have had type 1 diabetes for a long time and find out exactly what contributes to this microenvironment to recreate it.
‘The concept of harnessing the plasticity in the islet to regenerate beta cells has emerged as an intriguing possibility in recent years,’ said Andrew Rakeman, director of discovery research at charity the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which supported the research.
‘The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity. Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes,’ he added.
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