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New Finding Discovers How Embryos Create Beta-Cells

Posted: Friday, May 25, 2007

Scientists have discovered a key aspect of how embryos create the cells that secrete insulin. 
Researchers hope that their findings will enable the development of new therapies for diabetes, a condition caused by insufficient levels of insulin.
The study reveals that glucose plays a major role in enabling healthy beta cells, which secrete insulin, to develop in the pancreas of an embryo. Glucose prompts a gene called Neurogenin3 to switch on another gene, known as NeuroD, which is crucial for the normal development of beta cells.  If glucose levels are low this gene is not switched on.
Insulin is the principal hormone that regulates the uptake of glucose and if the beta cells are unable to produce sufficient insulin, this can cause diabetes.
The scientists, from Imperial College London and an INSERM Unit at Necker Hospital, Paris, hope that understanding how to switch on the gene that produces beta cells could eventually enable researchers to create the latter from stem cells.  They could then transplant beta cells into patients with type 1 diabetes, which causes the immune system to attack patients' beta cells.

The researchers hope that scientists will be able to develop drug therapies that enhance the action of glucose and hence encourage the growth of healthy beta cells.
Professor Guy Rutter, from the Division of Medicine at Imperial College and one of the authors of the paper, said: "We hope that by demonstrating that ‘extrinsic’ factors like glucose can regulate the way in which insulin secreting cells develop, we may eventually be able to reverse defects in the growth of these cells in patients with diabetes.
"Research like ours is opening up whole new sets of targets for drug treatments."
The scientists reached their conclusions after conducting research on tissues cultured from the primordial pancreas of very young rat embryos.
Using an in vitro system, rather than looking at cells in vivo, enables researchers to gain a greater understanding of when and how different genes are being switched on. 

Source: Diabetes In Control: Journal of Biological Chemistry. May 17, 2007

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