A protein that can help mend bones can also make pancreatic cells produce insulin, signifying that people with type 1 diabetes could produce insulin without daily injections.
Researchers at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami, Florida, found the protein BMP-7 (bone morphogenetic protein 7) can secrete high levels of insulin following laboratory studies.
A team led by Juan Domínguez-Bendala, director of stem cell development at the Diabetes Research Institute discovered non-beta cells in the pancreas were transformed into insulin-producing cells following exposure to BMP-7.
Insulin was secreted even more by these cells when exposed to glucose, which would be the normal reaction in people without diabetes. The researchers transplanted these pancreatic cells into diabetic mice, and they acted like healthy beta cells.
The research team now hope that BMP-7 can directly be injected into the pancreas to simulate new insulin-producing cells. They plan to do this alongside immunosuppressive drugs so that the new cells are not destroyed by the immune system.
“We are very encouraged by the simplicity of our finding,” said Domínguez-Bendala. “If we can stimulate them in the body, that’s where the major potential is. We’re trying that right now in mice.”
The aim now is that BMP-7 could be used to convert 98 per cent of donor pancreas cells into beta cells. This could potentially provide enough insulin-producing cells into seven people.
At this early stage, the research is very much preliminary and trials involving humans are not yet scheduled. Dominguez-Bendala believes, though, that BMP-7 is less risky that stem cell treatment – which involves introducing new genes into the body – and therefore could represent a novel type 1 diabetes treatment for the future.
The study was published in the journal Diabetes.

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