Brand new type of insulin-producing cell hiding in plain sight within the pancreas was found by the researchers and they offer new hope for better understanding, and one day even treating type diabetes.
It is known for type 1 diabetes that occurs when a person’s own immune system kills off most of their insulin-producing beta cells. And as insulin is the hormone that regulates our blood sugar, type 1 diabetics are left reliant on injecting themselves with insulin regularly.
Although the condition can usually be managed effectively, in order to properly treat it, researchers would need to find a way to regenerate a patient’s beta cells and prevent them from being attacked in the future.
With discovering these previously unnoticed cells in the pancreas, which the team is calling ‘virgin beta cells’, a new route for regrowing healthy mature beta cells could be offered, and it also provides insight into the basic mechanisms behind the disease.
The lead researcher Mark Huising from the University of California, said: “We’ve seen phenomenal advances in the management of diabetes, but we cannot cure it,”
“If you want to cure the disease, you have to understand how it works in the normal situation.”
In order to get a better insight into exactly what happens in type 1 diabetes, the researchers have studied both mice and human tissue.
Huising and his team were looking at regions inside the pancreas known as the islets of Langerhans. Those are the regions that contain the beta cells that detect blood sugar levels around the body and produce insulin in response in bodies of healthy humans and mice.
The islets contain cells called alpha cells, which produce glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar. These alpha cells, combined with the blood sugar-lowering beta cells, are how the body regulates blood sugar levels.
But in patients with type 1 diabetes, the beta cells are killed off by the body’s own immune system, and then they fail to regenerate.
Finding a way to overcome both of those problems is the key in order to treat the disease.
Scientists have been trying to do this for decades, and they had assumed that there was one main way for beta cells to be produced – through other adult beta cells dividing.
But after using new microscope techniques to study islet tissue in the lab, Huising and his team found a new type of cell scattered around the edges of the islets that no one had noticed before – and they looked a lot like immature beta cells, suggesting that maybe there was actually another way beta cells were being made.
Another study revealed that these new virgin beta cells could make insulin, but they did not have the receptors which detect glucose, so they could not function as mature beta cells.
Researchers have also observed some mature beta cells in the islets transitioning into alpha cells. This is representing a completely unexpected alpha cell generation pathway.
“There’s much more plasticity in the system than was thought,” -Huising said.
It’s still very early and these new cells now need to be confirmed in live humans and animals. But having the evidence that they exist, opens up a whole avenue of research on type 1 diabetes and potential treatments.
However, Huising claim that there are three main reasons to get excited about the result: it represents a new beta cell population in both humans and mice that we had no idea about before, and it also provides a potential new source of beta cells which can be used to treat diabetics.
Type 2 diabetes occur when beta cells become inactive and stop releasing or secreting insulin, and this research could also have benefits for.