New type of cell discovered in the pancreas

Posted on 07 April 2017

Researchers in the USA have identified immature beta cells in the pancreas that they hope could, in the future, be manipulated to mature into working, insulin-producing beta cells.


The autoimmune reaction that leads to type 1 diabetes destroys insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Many scientists have been trying to find a way of making the pancreas grow new beta cells or growing new beta cells in the lab from stem cells, to replace those that are lost.

Much of this work to date has looked at trying to get alpha cells – non insulin-producing cells also found in the pancreas – to turn into beta cells. Dr Mark O. Huising, and a team of researchers from different institutions in the USA, including the University of California Davis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have uncovered a new type of cell in the pancreas that might shed light on how to do this.

What did the team find?

Dr Huising leads a laboratory that studies the islets of Langerhans, the name given to clusters of cells, including beta cells, found in the pancreas. His team noticed that surrounding the islets of Langerhans in both mice and humans were a group of previously unnoticed cells that produce insulin, but cannot sense glucose. These are referred to as immature beta cells..

The researchers believe that these immature beta cells are in a transitional stage, changing from alpha cells into beta cells. The microenvironment on the edge of the islets of Langerhans appears to create just the right conditions to facilitate this change.

What does this mean?

The ViaCyte encapsulation device
The ViaCyte encapsulation device

Previous studies in mice seemed to suggest that new beta cell growth mainly came as a result of beta cells in the pancreas regenerating. In type 1 diabetes, almost all beta cells are destroyed, meaning there are none left to regenerate.

Dr Huising hopes that we could one day 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 living with type 1 diabetes, or the conditions could be recreated in the lab to make stem cells turn into insulin producing beta cells for use in replacement treatments like encapsulation.

Next steps

The team have some remaining questions to answer. They need to find out if this special microenvironment exists in people who have had type 1 diabetes for a long time, and they need tow work out exactly what contributes to this microenvironment to recreate it. They will need to continue their work to find these answers, and being on the path of turning this finding into a way to treat type 1.