Tongues to treat type 1 diabetes?

Posted on 30 January 2018

Mouth with tongue sticking out

Researchers in the USA are testing whether the key to treating type 1 diabetes could be found in your tongue.

The team, from the National Institute of Aging, aim to pick out stem cells from taste buds. They hope to grow these stem cells into cells that can produce insulin in response to changing glucose levels.

The programme is looking to recruit 90 participants willing to have five tiny samples from their tongue taken for the work.

Why are they looking for stem cells in taste buds?

Taste buds contain stem cells. Stem cells are the genies of cells –  they have the power to turn into anything. This means that scientists can use stem cells to grow other kinds of cells, although this is tricky to do in the lab as the stem cells have to be fed exactly the right mix of molecules under precise conditions.

In this case, the team want to see if it is possible to turn the stem cells into cells that can produce insulin.

Why grow insulin-producing cells?

Most people with type 1 diabetes have almost no insulin-producing beta cells left in their pancreas, as a result of the autoimmune attack. One way to treat or even cure type 1 diabetes would be to replace these lost beta cells with other cells that could produce insulin in response to glucose. These beta-like grown cells could either be directly transplanted into patients, or implanted via an encapsulation device.

What does this mean for type 1?

This work will help to further efforts to grow beta-like cells in the lab suitable for treating type 1 diabetes. If successful, this work could lead to specially tailored treatments for people with type 1 diabetes, as the beta-like cells could be grown directly from their own taste buds. This could take away the need for strong immunosuppressive drugs after transplants, and make transplants a more widely suitable treatment option for people living with type 1 diabetes.

Vitalijs Ovcinnikovs

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