Scientists have coaxed human 'progenitor' cells from the pancreas to develop into the glucose-sensitive beta cells, and discovered their exact location within the organ.
The idea that stem cells exist in the human pancreas, which can be stimulated into becoming the beta cells destroyed in type 1 diabetes has been around for decades. In a new study published in Cell Reports, researchers say they have been able to confirm this.
'Our in-depth study of these pancreatic stem cells may help us tap into an endogenous cell supply "bank" for beta cell regeneration purposes and, in the future, lead to therapeutic applications for people living with type 1 diabetes,' said Dr Juan Dominguez-Bendala at the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who co-led the study.
The team isolated a group of progenitor cells in vitro – which were characterised by the presence of a specific cell surface receptor called ALK3 and a protein called PDX1, needed for beta cell development.
They then used a naturally occurring growth factor protein called BMP-7 – which they had previously shown could stimulate growth into beta cells, to successfully nudge the progenitor cells to proliferate and become beta cells.
The team was able to precisely locate the progenitor cells to the major pancreatic ducts and pancreatic glands.
However, the researchers noted in their paper: 'We acknowledge that the beta-like cells generated in our study are not as competent as native beta cells. It is important to emphasise that our study was aimed at establishing proof of principle and not the generation of fully functional, terminally differentiated cells.'
They hope that the study offers potential for regenerating beta cells in diabetes.
'The ability to offer regenerative medicine strategies to restore insulin production in the native pancreas could one day replace the need for transplantation of the pancreas or insulin-producing cells,' said Dr Camillo Ricordi, director of the DRI.