Beta cells are in a part of the pancreas called the islets of Langerhans. They are responsible for producing insulin, without which the body cannot metabolize sugar. Currently, diabetics must inject insulin to enable proper digestion.
On Thursday, 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 latest scientific research involves finding which gene(s) are responsible for instructing a cell in the pancreas to become a beta cell. If the beta cells which die out in diabetics could be replaced by using the body’s own mechanisms, then insulin injections may become a thing of the past.
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 published in Friday’s edition of the journal Cell.
There are still issues to be worked out, such as why it works a little too well in very young mice and not older ones. This is an important milestone, and the next part of this research should be to determine the on/off switch so the gene is only active for exactly the right amount of time.