With a small jump start, the body can heal diabetes on its own

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The Pancreas
The Pancreas

Researchers find neighbouring cells can take over function of insulin producing cells

Diabetes is caused by damaged or non-existing insulin cells inability to produce insulin, a hormone that is necessary in regulating blood sugar levels. Many diabetes patients take insulin supplements to regulate these levels.

In collaboration with other international researchers, scientists at the University of Bergen have discovered that glucagon-producing cells in the pancreas, can change identity. They can adapt so that they do the job for their neighbouring damaged or missing insulin cells.

“We are possibly facing the start of a totally new form of treatment for diabetes, where the body can produce its own insulin, with some start-up help,” says Researcher Luiza Ghila at the Raeder Research Lab, Department of Clinical Science, University of Bergen (UiB).

The researchers discovered that only about 2 per cent the neighbouring cells in the pancreas could change identity.

Cells can change identity

The researchers discovered that only about 2 per cent the neighbouring cells in the pancreas could change identity. However, even that amount makes the researchers optimistic about potential new treatment approaches.

For the first time in history, researchers were able to describe the mechanisms behind the process of cell identity. It turns out that this is not a passive process, but is a result of signals from the surrounding cells. In the study, researchers were able to increase the number of insulin producing cells to 5 per cent, by using a drug that influenced the inter-cell signalling process. Thus far, the results have only been shown in animal models.

“If we gain more knowledge about the mechanisms behind this cell flexibility, then we could possibly be able to control the process and change more cells’ identities so that more insulin can be produced, ” Ghila explains.

Possible new treatment against cell death

According to the researchers, the new discovery is not just good news for diabetes treatment.

“The cells´ ability to change identity and function, may be a decisive discovery in treating other diseases caused by cell death, such as Alzheimer´s disease and cellular damage due to heart attacks”, says Luiza Ghila.

Facts: Pancreas

• There are three different types of cells in the pancreas: alpha-cells, beta-cells and delta-cells. These produce different kinds of hormones for blood sugar regulation.

• The cells make clusters. Alpha-cells produce glucagon, which increases the blood sugar levels. Beta-cells produce insulin, which decreases glucagon levels. Delta-cells produce somatostatin, which controls the regulation of the Alpha and Beta Cells.

• Persons with diabetes have a damaged beta-cell function, and therefore have constant high blood sugar levels.

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