The pancreas can heal itself from diabetes

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Self-healing of diabetes by compensating for the loss of beta cells

Up to puberty, the pancreas is more versatile and has a greater potential for self-healing than previously assumed. This is the conclusion of a study on mice funded as part of the National Research Program "Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine" (NRP 63).

Type 1 diabetes affects around 40,000 people in Switzerland. The disease is due to the failure of beta cells that produce insulin in the pancreas, which is essential for the body's sugar balance. Since beta cells do not renew themselves, science has long assumed that the loss of these cells was irreversible and that diabetics would therefore depend on insulin injections for the rest of their lives.

Mechanism previously unknown

Four years ago, researchers headed by Pedro Herrera from the University of Geneva shook this conviction for the first time when they demonstrated with genetically modified mice that a few alpha cells in the diseased pancreas convert into beta cells and then produce the blood sugar-lowering insulin instead of the blood sugar-increasing glucagon. Now the team around Herrera is doubling up with another discovery published in the journal "Nature" according to [*]: In mice before puberty, the pancreas is able to compensate for any loss of insulin-producing beta cells. "And with a new, previously completely unknown mechanism," says Herrera. Delta cells (which produce somatostatin, another hormone of the pancreas) regress in precursor cells, divide and finally produce beta and delta cells.

In contrast to the conversion of the alpha cells, which only takes place to a limited extent, the new mechanism with the convertible delta cells allows a more efficient compensation for the loss of the beta cells and a rapid self-healing of the diabetes. But while alpha cells can transform into old age, the delta cells' ability to change is limited in time and no longer possible after puberty.

Human pancreas similarly changeable

Although Herrera's group has studied the versatility of pancreatic cells in mice, several observations on patients indicate that the human pancreas is also similarly changeable. "The new mechanism shows us that the pancreas is much more plastic and - at least in childhood - has a much greater self-healing potential than we had previously assumed," says Herrera. There is still a long way to go before diabetes patients can benefit directly from these findings, says Herrera, but the discovery of the adaptable delta cells shows a previously unimagined possibility for therapeutic interventions.

National research program

"Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine" (NRP 63) The NRP 63 aims to gain fundamental knowledge about the nature, function and ability of stem cells to transform. In addition, NRP 63 aims to strengthen stem cell research in Switzerland. It started in 2010 and comprises 12 projects. NRP 63 has a budget of 10 million francs and will expire next year.

Source: S. Chera, D. Baronnier, L. Ghila, V. Cigliola, J. N. Jensen, G. Gu, K. Furuyama, F. Thorel, F. M. Gribble, F. Reimann and P. L. Herrera (2014). Diabetes Recovery By Age-Dependent Conversion of Pancreatic Delta-Cells Into Insulin Producers. Nature online: doi: 10.1038 / nature13633

last edited: 08/22/2014