A study conducted on cells in the pancreas has given new hope for a possible cure for diabetes. The results, published in Nature Cell Biology, demonstrate how cells in the pancreas can, when necessary, change function and identity. What’s more, the cells are able to maintain these new characteristics in the long-term. The real breakthrough, however, is that due to this discovery, in the future the body may be able to cure diabetes “all by itself”.
How cells in the pancreas are transformed
Beta-cells inside the pancreas produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Beta-cells are normally damaged or even non-existent in patients with diabetes. An international study conducted by the University of Bergen discovered that approximately 2% of cells in the pancreas that normally produce a different hormone called glucagon are able to change identity and take the place of damaged or missing beta-cells. For the first time ever, this study was able to identify the mechanisms that bring about this transformation. From research done on test animals, researchers discovered that cells were transformed after receiving signals from neighboring cells. Most importantly, it was also discovered that these signals can be strengthened through the use of specific drugs. This information is key to finding a cure for diabetes.
A possible cure for diabetes
The two types of cells found in the pancreas, beta-cells that produce insulin and alpha cells that produce glucagon, have similar traits in function and identity, explains assistant professor of Internal Medicine Salvatore Piro at the University of Catania. According to Piro, the study conducted by the University of Bergen has demonstrated important results, even though they cannot be applied in the immediate future. The study identifies a process in which beta-cells derived from alpha cells can maintain their new identity, but these discoveries have yet to be tested on the human body. Nonetheless, these results allow us to theorize new treatment strategies for the future that could have a considerable impact on the chronicity of diabetes. If researchers are able to control mechanisms that regulate cell flexibility, the identity of an even greater number of cells can be changed, thus allowing the body of a patient with diabetes to eventually produce the insulin it needs all by itself.
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