US researchers have discovered a new way to regenerate insulin-producing beta cells, which could lead to new treatments for type 1 diabetes.
Scientists from the University of California, Davis observed a new population of beta cells in both humans and mice that hasn’t previously been known to researchers.
These new cells found within pancreatic islets can make insulin, but cannot detect glucose, so in their current state could not function as a full beta cell.
But when the study team observed the cells in greater detail, they found this new population could be used to replace beta cells killed off in people with type 1 diabetes.
Lead author Dr Mark Huising and colleagues had been studying how insulin-producing cells work to regulate blood sugar levels.
“We’ve seen phenomenal advances in the management of diabetes, but we cannot cure it,” he said. “If you want to cure the disease, you have to understand how it works in the normal situation.”
They applied new microscopic techniques in mice and human cells and identified this new cell population within islets. They noticed the cells looked much like an immature beta cell, capable of producing insulin but not detecting glucose.
Huising’s team was able to observe alpha cells in the islet turn into immature beta cells and then mature into real beta cells.
“We thus identified a lifelong source of new beta cells at a specialized site within healthy islets,” Huising explained. “By comparing co-existing immature and mature beta cells within healthy islets, we stand to learn how to mature insulin-expressing cells into functional beta cells.”
The researchers believe this understanding could help in developing stem cell treatments for diabetes, and also shed light on type 2 diabetes, where beta cells become inactive and no longer release insulin.
Andrew Rakema, Ph.D., director of discovery research at JDRF, which helped fund the study, is excited about the potential significance of these results.
“The work from Dr. Huising and his team is showing us not only the degree of plasticity in islet cells, but the paths these cells take when changing identity.
“Adding to that the observations that the same processes appear to be occurring in human islets raises the possibility that these mechanistic insights may be able to be turned into therapeutic approaches for treating diabetes.”
The study has been published online in the journal Cell Metabolism.

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