Scientists Change Cell Function: Possibly Cure Diabetes

Glucagon-producing cells in the pancreas were influenced to produce insulin.
Jessica Miley

Researchers at the University of Bergen have found that ordinary human cells can change their original function. It has been widely assumed that cells in the human body can only differentiate to the same cell type. But new research has shown that they can change their original function. 


This is the first research in the world to have ever managed to influence the signals in human cells so that these cells can change their original function. 

"By influencing the glucagon-producing cells in the pancreas, we made them be able to produce insulin instead. This may lead to new treatments for diabetes," says Professor Helge Ræder, leader of the Diabetes Stem Cell Group, Department of Clinical Science, UiB. 

Mice recovered from diabetes after cell transplant

To prove their research the scientists implanted the manipulated cells into the pancreas of mice with diabetes, the mice were able to recover from the disease after the transplant but became sick again after the cells were removed. 

Not only could the manipulated glucagon-producing cells produce insulin, the research showed that they were also more resistant against the immune system, which often attacks insulin-producing cells in people with diabetes. 

"This means that we probably can use the patient's own cells in this diabetes treatment, without being afraid that the manipulated cells will eventually be destroyed by the immune system," Ræder explains.

"Today, it is possible to transplant insulin-producing cells from dead donors to diabetes patients. The big challenge is that we are only able to treat a very small fraction of the patients with this method."

Other diseases could be cured with a similar method

The researchers have hopes that the cell manipulation won’t just be effective in changing the function of cells in the pancreas, but that the science could be applied to other types of cells in the human body leading to new treatments for many diseases. 


"The ability of cells to change their function may be important in the treatment of other diseases caused by cell death, including neurological diseases, heart attacks, and cancer," says Helge Ræder. 

The pancreas has three different kinds of cells; alpha-cells, beta-cells, and delta-cells. The cells produce different kinds of hormones that regulate blood sugar levels. 

Glucagon is produced from the alpha cells which increases blood sugar levels. Beta-cells produce insulin, which decreases glucagon levels, and delta-cells produce somatostatin, which controls the regulation of the Alpha and Beta Cells. 

Type I diabetes patients have damaged beta-cell function which results in constant high blood sugar levels. The most common treatment for this is insulin by injections. Approximately 1.25 million American children and adults have Type I diabetes. The study is published in Nature journal.

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