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Pancreatic cells can switch fate to produce insulin, say Stanford researchers

blue-143734_1280Flip-flopping is often considered to be a sign of indecision and poor judgment, but in the world of biology it can signal a kind of developmental flexibility that can help the body respond more nimbly to injury or disease. Now, developmental biologist Seung Kim, MD, PhD, and postdoctoral scholar Harini Chakravarthy, PhD, have shown it is possible to stimulate the rapid and efficient conversion of cells called alpha cells in the pancreases of living mice into another type of cell called a beta cell, which secretes insulin. This is a hopeful finding for people with Type 1 diabetes.

Kim and his colleagues published their results today in Cell Metabolism.

From our release:

Studies of human pancreases from diabetic cadaver donors suggest that the alpha cells’ 'career change' also occurs naturally in diabetic humans, but on a much smaller and slower scale. The research suggests that scientists may one day be able to take advantage of this natural flexibility in cell fate to coax alpha cells to convert to beta cells in humans to alleviate the symptoms of diabetes.

The researchers achieved the switch by blocking the expression of just two genes. Furthermore, the cells seemed to seamlessly accept their new fate. "Through these rigorous studies by our colleagues and collaborators, we found that these former alpha cells were — in every way — remarkably similar to native beta cells," Kim said.

Andrew Rakeman, PhD, the director of discovery research at JDRF, an organization that funds research into Type 1 diabetes, who was not involved in the research, put the findings into context in our release:

Transdifferentiation of alpha cells into insulin-producing beta cells is a very attractive therapeutic approach for restoring beta cell function in established type 1 diabetes. By identifying the pathways regulating alpha to beta cell conversion and showing that these same mechanisms are active in human islets from patients with type 1 diabetes, Chakravarthy and her colleagues have made an important step toward realizing the therapeutic potential of alpha cell transdifferentiation.

Previously: Your aging pancreas and you: Researchers chart diabetes-related changes over time, New insulin decreasing hormone discovered, named for goddess of starvation and Tiny fruit flies as powerful diabetes model
Photo by werner22brigitte

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