Previously unknown type of regenerating insulin-producing cell discovered.

Type I diabetes is a disease with two parts, firstly, the beta cells are killed by the body’s own immune system, and then secondly they fail to regenerate, causing the body to lose the ability to control blood glucose. Therefore, an effective cure for type I diabetes could involve dealing with the inability of insulin-producing beta cells to regenerate. Now, a study from researchers at the University of California Davis identifies a previously unknown type of regenerating insulin-producing cell.  The team states their study shows a possible new route to regenerating beta cells, giving insight into the basic mechanisms behind healthy metabolism and diabetes.  The study is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Previous studies show in both mice and people the islets are regions in the pancreas containing its hormone-producing cells. Amongst these endocrine cells are beta-cells capable of detecting glucose and secreting insulin, and other cell types including alpha cells known to produce glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar. The opposite effects of insulin and glucagon enable the body to regulate blood sugars and store nutrients.  The accepted dogma involves new beta cells being produced by other beta cells dividing. The current study identifies a previously unknown type of cell, whose appearance is similar to that of an immature beta cell, scattered around the edges of the islets.

The current study shows these new cells can make insulin, and don’t have receptors to detect glucose, so they can’t function as a full beta-cell. Data findings show these cells are an intermediate stage in the differentiation of alpha cells into cells functionally indistinguishable from conventional beta cells.

The lab explains this new beta-cell population in both humans and mice could be a source to replenish beta cells killed off in diabetes.  They go on to add an understanding of how these cells mature into functioning beta cells could help in the development of stem cell therapies for diabetes.  The group concludes this basic understanding of cells in the islets could also help in understanding type 2 diabetes further, where beta cells become inactive and no longer secrete insulin.

The team surmises they have discovered a population of immature beta cells present throughout life.  For the future, the researchers state by comparing co-existing immature and mature beta cells within healthy islets, the global medical community stands to learn how to mature insulin-expressing cells into functional beta cells.

Source: University of California – Davis

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