A breakthrough by German scientists could secure the next step towards a new treatment for type 1 diabetes.
Scientists from Helmholtz Zentrum München have discovered the signals that determine the fate of immature pancreatic cells, whether they become insulin-producing cells or not.
These pancreatic cells are known as progenitor cells, cells which can differentiate into specific types of cells. They are like “pinballs” according to the researchers, constantly moving around and causing frequent environmental changes.
The researchers inspected progenitor cells in greater detail because the eventual aim for treating type 1 diabetes is to generate insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells. And progenitor cells are similar to stem cells.
Using a three-dimensional network, the scientists observed progenitor cells reacted to a variety of signals, which determine what type of cells they become.
They then uncovered the signalling pathways that led to these reactions, and hope to be able to deploy this mechanism in stem cells.
Manufacturing insulin-producing islet cells from stem cells is not easy, and it can be costly. But researchers believe their new strategy could make this more cost-effective, and lead to greater production.

“Our discovery breaks new ground because it explains how multipotent progenitor cells mature into different cell types during organ formatio,” said lead author Professor Henrik Semb.
“It also gives us the tools to recreate the processes in the laboratory, to more precisely engineer cells that are lost or damaged in severe diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases, for future cell replacement therapies.”
The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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