A new study has uncovered one of the ways in which insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells in the pancreas die off, due to the toxic imbalance of a molecule secreted by other pancreatic cells.
Researchers in Italy and Texas found that neighbouring alpha cells, which manufacture glucagon, the hormone that increases blood sugar during fasting, can act as an adversary of beta cells, as they are both grouped in the pancreas. In the same environment, the beta cells make insulin, the hormone that reduces blood glucose levels after a meal, with the imbalance leading to diabetes .
Franco Folli co-lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, commented “We found that glutamate, a major signaling molecule in the brain and pancreas, is secreted together with glucagon by alpha cells and affects beta cell integrity.”
He added “In a situation where there is an imbalance toward more alpha cells and fewer beta cells, as in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, this could result in further beta cell destruction.”
It was not understood before that glutamate toxicity was a mechanism of beta cell destructio, or that alpha cells could themselves be a cause of beta cell damage. In addition, the scientists revealed a protection for beta cells, a protein called GLT1, that controls glutamate levels outside the beta cells that acts in the same way as a thermostat.

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