Non-beta “progenitor” cells in the pancreas can be stimulated to turn into beta cells even after birth or autoimmune injury to the pancreas, say researchers at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
The cells, pancreatic duct cells, can be coaxed inside or outside the body to become insulin-producing beta cells. The finding addresses two problems: finding a new source of beta cells with which to treat type 1 diabetes via transplantation, and overcoming recipients’ immune system reactions to transplanted cells.
If a person’s own pancreatic progenitor cells could be transformed into beta cells, both problems would be solved.
The Joslin study challenges the results of an earlier Harvard study, published in 2004, which concluded that after birth new beta cells could only result from division of preexisting beta cells. It also asserted that beta cells do not form from progenitor cells after birth.
The study’s immediate implication is that an unexpected new source of beta cells will be available for replacement therapy. Eventually, the research findings could be used in therapies designed to allow people with diabetes to regenerate their own islet cells