A new study has discovered a set of mechanisms that could explain the death of beta cells in people with diabetes.
The research, conducted at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Molecular Health Sciences, suggests that people with diabetes massively overproduce aribonucleic acid, which is known as microRNA (miR) 200.
The study was conducted on mice. Those with diabetes had a much higher production of miR-200 in their beta cells, compared to those without diabetes. When the researchers accelerated the production of miR-200 in non-diabetic mice, their beta cells died.
Similarly blocking the production of miR-200 consistently stopped beta cells from dying even when they were placed under extreme stress.
“These observations are extremely revealing and interesting,” says Markus Stoffel, who led the study.
The researchers also discovered that there are several microRNAs that affect beta cells. “It appears that several microRNAs act on beta cells, performing different stress management tasks, says Stoffel.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas, thinking that they are foreign invaders. People with type 1 diabetes do not produce insulin, therefore, and must have it administered via injection. By understanding what exactly causes the beta cells to die, scientists could develop more accurate ways to develop new treatments and potential vaccines.
One of the miR families affects the division of beta cells in response to insulin demands. Another influences the production of insulin. Stoffel says that the latest findings represent a third group of microRNAs: “We’ve now established that the third family, miR-200, is responsible for the life and death of beta cells.”
MicroRNAs are part of a complex network, the significance of which is often underappreciated. Their functions include the regulation of genes, which can have significant effects on the behaviour of cells. “The fine tuning for which microRNAs are responsible has long been underestimated.”
The findings could have huge potential for people with diabetes. Armed with this knowledge, researchers could potentially develop more sophisticated therapeutic solutions for diabetes.

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