In a new discovery based on lab experiments with human cells, researchers at the University of Exeter in Britain have found that diabetes may change the function of insulin-producing cells in a way that hasn’t been noted before.
The research team exposed pancreatic beta cells, which normally produce insulin, to a chemical environment similar to what would be expected in type 2 diabetes. But their discoveries may also be relevant to type 1 diabetes, since some research has suggested that many people with the disease retain some beta cells in their pancreas — which might be able to produce some insulin under the right conditions.
In the study, published last week in the journal Human Molecular Genetics, the researchers found that when beta cells were exposed to a diabetes-like environment, many of them stopped producing insulin and started making a different hormone, somatostatin. This hormone is normally produced by different cells in the pancreas and elsewhere, known as delta cells.
Next, the researchers tried to figure out what might have caused these cellular changes. They looked at tissue samples from the pancreases of people with type 2 diabetes, and found that about a quarter of the genes in these samples showed disruption in the pattern of messages they coded, compared with samples from people without diabetes. These kinds of messages control every aspect of a cell’s behavior, so the researchers speculated that the observed change in hormone production was a result of gene disruption.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the study is that these changes appeared to be reversible.
“In the laboratory at least, we have been able to reverse the changes — turn the delta cells back to beta cells — if we restore the environment to normal, or if we treat the cells with chemicals that restore the regulator genes,” says lead researcher Lorna Harries, a professor at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“That’s very promising when we consider the potential for new therapeutics,” she notes.
A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree in government from Harvard University. He writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.