UK scientists believe there is potential to re-engineer cells in people with diabetes to restore insulin production.

Researchers from the University of Exeter, in the first study of its kind not involving animals, have uncovered new insights as to how high blood glucose may alter the behaviour of insulin-producing cells.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers investigated a human cell system within the laboratory and exposed the cells to an environment designed to replicate type 2 diabetes.

People with type 2 diabetes can gradually lose ability to produce insulin over time and this has previously been linked to having less well controlled blood glucose levels. Researchers have assumed that the insulin-producing beta cells die because of the microenvironment around the cells.

However, a finding within the new trial indicates a new phenomenon. The research team found that, in the presence of high glucose levels, a proportion of the beta cells stopped producing insulin and started to produce a different hormone, somatostati, instead. Therefore, some of the beta cells were starting to behave like another type of cell called delta cells, which are the cells that produce somatostatin.

Upon analysing post-mortem pancreas tissue taken from people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, more delta cells were found than the team had expected.

The findings indicate potential for new treatments that may prevent beta cells from losing their insulin producing behaviour. This could have treatment implications for type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Lead scientist Professor Lorna Harries said: “Only recently, Exeter researchers discovered that people with type 1 diabetes still retain some insulin-producing cells, but the environment produced by diabetes can be toxic for these cells that remain.

“Our work could lead to new changes to protect these cells, which could help people maintain some ability to make their own insulin. The method we used of creating an all-human cell system for the first time is significant – I don’t think we’d have seen these changes in mouse cells.”

Carla Owe, Chief Executive of Animal Free Research UK, which funded the research, said: “This is pioneering research at its best. We’re proud to be supporting the next phase to take this discovery forward and closer to treatments for people living with diabetes.”

The findings appear in the journal Human Molecular Genetics.

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