Insulin-producing mini-stomachs: a game-changer for diabetes?
THE key to a new cellular therapy for dia betes may lie in the stomach, according to the results of a new study; researchers have used stomach cells to create “miniorgans” that produce insulin when transplanted in mice. In the US, around 29.1 million people have diabetes. Of these, around 1.25 million have type 1 diabetes, where the destruction of beta cells in the pancreas halts insulin production, leading to inadequate regulation of blood glucose levels.
In an attempt to find a cure for the condition, researchers have spent years searching for ways to replace these insulin-producing beta cells. Last October, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study in which researchers reprogrammed pancreatic duct-derived cells (HDDCs) to behave like beta cells and produce and secrete insulin.
But this latest study - published in the journal Cell Stem Cell - suggests that cells from the lower section of the stomach, known as the pylorus region, show the greatest potential to be reprogrammed to act like beta cells. Senior study author Qiao Zhou, of the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University in Boston, MA, and colleagues genetically engineered mice to express three genes that have the ability to convert cells into beta cells.
This enabled the team to pinpoint which cells in the mice were most likely to have insulin-producing potential. “We looked all over, from the nose to the tail of the mouse,” says Zhou. “We discovered, surprisingly, that some of the cells in the pylorus region of the stomach are most amenable to conversion to beta cells. This tissue appears to be the best starting material.” The pylorus region is the area that joins the stomach to the small intestine.
The researchers explain that when they reprogrammed various cells to behave like beta cells, the pylorus cells had the strongest response to high blood glucose levels in the mice, producing insulin in order to bring their glucose levels back to normal. To test the effectiveness of these cells, the researchers destroyed the beta cells of two groups of diabetes mouse models. One group had their pylorus cells reprogrammed to act like beta cells, while a control group did not undergo pylorus cell reprogramming. While the mice in the control group died within 8 weeks, those that had their pylorus cells reprogrammed maintained their insulin and glucose levels for the entire monitoring period, which was up to 6 months. This suggests that the reprogrammed pylorus cells compensated for the lack of beta cells. Asked why pylorus cells appear to be the best cells to convert for insulin production, Zhou told MNT: “From our molecular and physiological studies, pylorus derived beta-cells appear to most closely resemble native beta cells in the pancreas and therefore can do a better job at regulating blood glucose.”