Islet-cell transplantation, in which islets are transferred from one person to another, is performed today but is limited in scope because of a shortage of donors, according to the study.
The very existence of pancreatic stem cells is controversial. A recent study out of Harvard found that the major source of new beta cells in adult mice was preexisting beta cells, not stem cells. The finding reduced the urgency to track down pancreatic stem cells.
"If stem cells didn't contribute, what was the point," said Dominguez-Bendala.
For this study, Heimberg and his colleagues cut off the duct that drains digestive enzymes from the pancreas in mice. Within two weeks, the number of beta cells in the pancreas doubled.
Not only did the number of beta cells increase, the mice started producing more insulin.
"When damaged a specific way, it triggered stem cells" production, Dominguez-Bendala said.
The newly identified stem cells were almost identical to embryonic beta cell progenitors. In fact, the gene Neurogenin 3 (Ngn3), which plays a role in embryonic development of the pancreas, is also involved in the formation of these new beta cells, the researchers said.
"This is a model of regeneration no one has tested before," Dominguez-Bendala said. "From a basic science point of view, it's very exciting. It opens the door to potential therapies. If we could trigger regeneration, that would be fantastic."
For more on pancreatic islet transplantation, visit the U.S. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.
SOURCES: Juan Dominguez-Bendala, Ph.D., director, Stem Cell Development for Translational Research, Diabetes Research Institute, and assistant professor, surgery, University of
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