Beta-cell regeneration is a natural process that creates new beta cells, which make and secrete insulin in the pancreas. Diabetes researchers are interested in exploiting its underlying mechanisms to prevent, treat, or cure type 1 diabetes.
Growing evidence suggests that we have some ability to regenerate beta cells. In pregnant or obese individuals, for example, the mass and number of beta cells expand considerably to meet the body’s increased insulin requirements.
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Beta-cell regeneration raises tantalizing possibilities for type 1 diabetes. The autoimmune destruction of beta cells is gradual, and recent research suggests that many people with long-standing diabetes still appear to have some residual beta-cell function, sometimes even decades after diagnosis. The body’s natural regeneration of beta cells may be hampered by high blood glucose levels, which can damage newly regenerated beta cells, and by the autoimmune process that caused diabetes in the first place. If researchers could intensify blood glucose control, learn how to turn off the autoimmune response, and give people something that would stimulate beta-cell growth, this might lead to regeneration and restoration of functioning beta cells, even in people with established type 1 diabetes. Alternatively, perhaps people in the very earliest stages of Type 1 diabetes could be treated to delay — or prevent — full-blown clinical diabetes. Several agents have successfully promoted beta cell regeneration in mice, but none has yet shown success in humans.