Beta Cells Morph into Stem-Like Cells: Can They Also Turn into Insulin Producers?

A study of beta cells at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal could hold significant promise for people with type 1 diabetes.

Researchers at MUHC found that pancreatic beta cells grown in vitro can return to a primitive developmental state in which they become stem-like cells. (Stem cells, adult or embryonic, are so-called “master cells” that have the ability to grow into any one of the more than 200 cell types in the human body.)

The process of assuming a stem-like state is called “dedifferentiation.” The McGill scientists found that it also works in three other types of cells found in the pancreas’s islets of Langerhans, the glands that produce insulin and other hormones.

The discovery of dedifferentiation opens the door to a next-step study of whether beta cells that have assumed stem-like characteristics can then be coaxed to regenerate into insulin producers.

Many people with type 1 diabetes retain beta cells in their pancreases despite devastating attacks on them by their own autoimmune systems. Assuming that scientists can find ways to prevent further autoimmune attacks, the ability to regenerate remnant beta cells in type 1s would be a significant advance in diabetes treatment.

Results of the MUHC study were published in the July issue of Laboratory Investigation.

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