Could the pancreas grow back lost beta cells?

Posted on 01 March 2018

Two scientists use microscope
Dr Juan Dominguez-Bendala (at the microscope) and Dr Ricardo Pastori and their team have confirmed the existence of cells within the human pancreas that can be stimulated to develop into beta-like cells /Diabetes Research Institute Foundation

Researchers in the US have confirmed the existence of cells in the pancreas that are able to turn into beta-like cells.

These findings could open the door for regenerative treatments that aim to cure type 1 diabetes by encouraging new beta cells to grow in the pancreas.

Why did they do this research?

Researchers have suspected for many years that there are cells in the pancreas that can turn into different kinds of pancreatic cells. These cells, known as progenitor cells, would be a key target for curing type 1 diabetes if they could be encouraged to turn into beta cells.

The team had previously found that the hormone BMP-7 could stimulate these pancreatic progenitor cells. BMP-7 is a naturally occurring hormone, which is also approved by the FDA to treat bone conditions.

The researchers next wanted to test whether BMP-7 could be used to encourage the pancreatic progenitor cells to turn into beta-like cells that could respond to changing glucose levels.

What did they find?

The team identified and isolated the progenitor cells by checking for the presence of two specific proteins. The researchers grew these cells in the lab, and gave them BMP-7.

The progenitor cells not only were able to multiply, but they later turned into beta-like cells.

What does this mean for type 1?

These results indicate that BMP-7 could form part of a treatment to restore the lost beta cells in the pancreas of someone living with type 1 diabetes.

JDRF UK’s Senior Manager for Research Communications & Engagement Angela Wipperman said:

“In the short term, a technique based on BMP-7 treatment could be a safer and more efficient alternative to pancreas and islets transplants, as growing beta cells within the person would remove the need for the strong immunosuppressive drugs needed after transplants.

“In the longer term, this approach could present a possible cure for type 1 diabetes when combined with a treatment to stop the body’s autoimmune attack on the newly-grown beta cells, as suggested by the researchers in their paper.”

What’s the next step?

In their paper, the authors state that their findings will help them to screen the pancreases of people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, to see if they have any of these progenitor cells remaining.

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