Diabetes Game Changer: Pancreatic Cells Coaxed To Make Insulin

In a potential diabetes breakthrough, an FDA approved drug has been shown to make normal pancreatic cells into an insulin producing variety. 

A simple solution

Individuals with type 1 diabetes have their insulin producing beta cells destroyed in their pancreas by their own faulty immune cells. Although patients can take regular insulin injections, these are a pain, inaccurate and blood glucose levels can often dip lower or higher than they should - causing damage. Taking an injection is easy to forget and many patients don't follow advice to the letter. 

There is currently a range of better options being considered in the lab, including beta cell transplants, gene therapy and using a patient's own stem cells to produce more insulin producing cells These methods are more expensive however, carry additional risks and can be constricted, so some scientists have been looking for a simpler way of pushing pancreatic cells into producing crucial insulin. 

An alternative

Research has found there are remaining cells in the pancreas called progenitor cells, which can form new insulin producing cells under certain conditions. The signalling pathway that can activate this transformation is controlled by bone morphogenic proteins (BMPs) which are growth factors that control bone growth among a number of other processes. 

An islet of Langerhans cluster including beta cells, from a rat pancreas

Testing the theory 

Armed with this knowledge, researchers tested a particular BMP called BMP-7 on these pancreatic progenitor cells. BMP-7 is already FDA approved for encouraging bone growth. To their surprise, they found this factor was sufficient to transform the progenitors into insulin producing machines. The level of insulin express was also far higher than precious efforts by other research groups. Not only did these cells produce insulin, but they survived implantation and were sensitive to blood glucose levels; modifying insulin release accordingly. 

Although patients with type 1 diabetes would still suffer auto-immune destruction of these new cells, this could potentially be a faster, easier option and could last for some time before the new batch was destroyed. 

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