Reprogramming Beta Cells through Drug Manipulation

by Mark Benson on November 4, 2011

New study shows greater beta cell action

Pediatric researchers using an existing diabetes drug were able to prevent the development of diabetes in newborn animals, as they developed to become adults. If this can be done in humans, then the promise of preventing predisposed diabetic infants from eventually developing this dreaded condition can be achieved.

According to the study’s senior author Dr. Rebecca A. Simmons, “We uncovered a novel mechanism to prevent the later development of diabetes in this animal study. This may indicate that there is an important developmental window, a period of time in which we can intervene to permanently protect the body’s insulin producing cells.”

The work was a collaboration between Dr. Simmons, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Dr. Sara E. Pinney, a pediatric endocrinologist also at the Children’s Hospital. The study was published in the October issue of Diabetologia.

This research is relevant to children suffering from complications of intrauterine growth retardation or IUGR. This is a common complication during pregnancy where there is a decreased availability of nutrients and hormones to the developing status resulting in alterations of gene expression such as impairment of insulin producing cells in the pancreas. These developed defects have shown to result in Type 2 diabetes when the child reaches adulthood.

The team used Exendin-4 and this drug was recently approved for adult use for individuals suffering from Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic condition where the body produces insufficient amounts of insulin or is unable to utilize insulin normally. How the drug works is still being studied but it’s hormone like effect raises the amount of insulin produced by adults.

The study used rats injected with the induced form of IUGR. When the same drug is given to newborn rats, the drug had epigenetic effects. This means that the genes of the rat’s pancreas are being changed without any change on the DNA sequences. Ex-4 increased the activity of the gene called Pdx1 that helps the proper functioning of beta cells. Beta cells produce insulin in the pancreas for both humans and rats.

Pinney adds, “In our study, giving Exendin-4 during the newborn period had permanent beneficial effects on beta cells. This could be important for people, in whom abnormal changes in infancy may irreversibly alter beta cells and lead to adult-onset diabetes. If we can establish that treating at-risk human babies with exendin-4 or a similar compound has corresponding effects, we may have a new preventive approach for Type 2 diabetes.”

The researchers though recognize the need for much more research to be done on the subject. This includes basic biology and further evaluation of the genome-wide effects of the drug before considering clinical use for children to achieve its long-term benefits.


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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

nightstar March 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm

it is very promising discovery. Hope one day diabetes will be preventable as not tuberculous do.

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