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Scientists Alter Pancreatic Cells to Treat Type 1 Diabetes

Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2009

By activating one gene, researchers can reprogram cells to produce insulin, according to a study in the journal Cell.

A race is on to find a way to cure Type 1 diabetes by regenerating the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas that are lost to the disease. Without them, the body is unable to metabolize sugar, forcing patients to compensate by injecting themselves with insulin several times a day.

One popular strategy has been to try to get embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells -- which can theoretically become any type of human cell -- to grow into these so-called beta cells. Last year researchers from Harvard University took a huge shortcut and transformed normal pancreas cells into the coveted beta cells by activating a trio of dormant genes.
Last Thursday, August 6th, a team of European and American researchers showed that pancreatic cells in diabetic mice could be reprogrammed into beta cells by turning on just one gene, called Pax4.

The scientists gave the mice a chemical called streptozotocin that killed off their beta cells while preserving other types of pancreatic cells. Then they activated the Pax4 gene, which does most of its work during fetal development.

They found that the gene converted so-called alpha cells -- which normally made a hormone called glucagon -- into beta cells that made insulin. Beta cell levels were eight times higher in treated mice than in untreated control subjects, according to the study of the journal Cell. published in last week's edition.
For some reason that the researchers don't yet understand, the therapy worked best on mice that were less than 1 month old. For them, the treatment completely counteracted the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes.

In fact, it may have worked too well, leaving the mice with a shortage of alpha cells. Before this approach can be tried in humans, scientists will need to figure out a safe way to turn on the Pax4 gene -- and then find a way to shut it off.

"A lot of 'ifs' remain before we will know whether it could be taken to the clinic," said the study's lead author, Patrick Collombat, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany.

But for Type 1 diabetes patients who are currently treated with daily insulin injections, he said in a statement, this much is clear, "We need a better treatment. We need to find a way to regenerate beta cells."

Source: Diabetes In Control: The journal Cell, Aug 7, 2009

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