Beta cell conversion could unlock changes during type 1 diabetes development
Stanford University School of Medicine scientists have converted cells known as alpha cells into insulin-producing beta cells in mice, a development which could be significant in eventually preventing type 1 diabetes.
Dr Seung Kim, professor of developmental biology and of medicine and senior author of the study, said: "It is important to carefully evaluate any and all potential sources of new beta cells for people with diabetes.
"Now we've discovered what keeps an alpha cell as an alpha cell, and found a way to efficiently convert them in living animals into cells that are nearly indistinguishable from beta cells. It's very exciting."
Pancreatic beta and alpha cells are needed to regulate the body's blood sugar levels. When these levels rise, beta cells release insulin to store glucose for when it is needed later on, but this process does not happen in type 1 diabetes.
While previous research has shown that one per cent of pancreatic alpha cells begin to look and act like beta cells, there was no understanding of why this happens.
Dr Kim's team had ideas which were "based on our own work as to what the master regulators might be", and having tested their theory on mice, they begun to study human pancreatic tissue.
Samples were taken from beta cells in children who had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes within one or two years of the study start. These showed that individual cells were capable of producing both glucagon and insulin within their systems.
The researchers believe they might have identified critical cells during the conversion of alpha to beta cells which could help them understand potential new ways to prevent type 1 diabetes in the future.
"The same basic changes may be happening in humans with type 1 diabetes," added Kim. "This indicates that it might be possible to use targeted methods to block these genes or the signals controlling them in the pancreatic islets of people with diabetes to enhance the proportion of alpha cells that convert into beta cells."
The study appears in the journal Cell Metabolism.
Editor's note: This article has been amended to reflect it was the beta cells that were studied within one or two years of the children's type 1 diabetes diagnosis.