NEW YORK, April 5, 2010 Alpha cells in the pancreas, which do not produce insulin, can convert into insulin-producing beta cells, advancing the prospect of regenerating beta cells as a cure for type 1 diabetes. The findings come from a study at the University of Geneva, co-funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, that is published today in the online edition of the scientific journal Nature.
The researchers, led by Dr. Pedro L. Herrera, demonstrated that beta cells will spontaneously regenerate after near-total beta cell destruction in mice and the majority of the regenerated beta cells are derived from alpha cells that had been reprogrammed, or converted, into beta cells. Using a unique model of diabetes in mice, in which nearly all of the beta cells are rapidly destroyed, the researchers found that if the mice were maintained on insulin therapy, beta cells were slowly and spontaneously restored, eventually eliminating the need for insulin replacement. Alpha cells normally reside alongside beta cells in the pancreas and secrete a hormone called glucagon, which works opposite to insulin to regulate the levels of sugar in the blood. Alpha cells are not attacked by the autoimmune processes that destroy beta cells and causes type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic, autoimmune disease that affects children, adolescents and adults, in which the immune system attacks the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, a hormone that enables people to convert food into energy. People with type 1 diabetes are dependent on insulin treatment for the rest of their life.
Dr. Herrera's results are the first to show that beta cell reprogramming can occur spontaneously, without genetic alterations. Previous efforts to reprogram non-beta cells into beta cells relied on genetic manipulations processes that can not be easily translated into therapies.
According to Dr. Andrew Rakeman, JDRF Program Manager in
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Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International