A Swiss study of mice has found that certain cells in the pancreas can regenerate themselves into insulin-producing cells after normal insulin-producing cells have been destroyed, as happens in type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes experts cautioned, however, that far more research is needed to see if the process could benefit people with type 1 diabetes. If such a process occurs in humans, or could be induced to occur there remains the fact that, in people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system attack on beta cells appears to go on indefinitely. So people who have transplants of insulin-producing cells eventually end up back on insulin as their immune system destroys the transplanted beta cells too.
“Any time you’re thinking about any type of a cure or really good treatments for type 1 diabetes, you have to consider both the beta cells and the immune side,” said Andrew Rakeman, the scientific program manager in beta cell regeneration at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which funded a portion of the new research.
“At this point, it’s unknown whether reprogrammed alpha cells would be vulnerable. Alpha cells are normally not destroyed by the immune system, but in regenerating, they’re losing traits that make them alpha cells to turn into beta cells. So, it’s likely that they’ll appear to the immune system as beta cells,” Rakeman said.
Dr. David Kendall, chief scientific and medical officer at the American Diabetes Association, sounded a cautionary note saying, “Anything that speaks of a potential source of new insulin producing cells is pretty exciting. However, I always have cautious enthusiasm for such findings. Early promise is not always a guarantee, and a number of mouse findings haven’t translated well in human research.”