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Beta cell progenitors discovered in adult mouse pancreas

Investigators of the Diabetes Research Center at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel have isolated cells from the pancreas of adult mice that formed insulin-producing beta cells. Because nobody had been able to identify these elusive progenitors from adult organisms before, their existence has been questioned.

The research group of Harry Heimberg reports these findings in the January 25 issue of the leading edge scientific journal Cell. If these progenitor cells are also present in the human pancreas, they may create new possibilities for treatment of diabetic patients who suffer from insulin deficiency due to insufficient beta cells. Insulin is needed to transport sugar, our primary energy source, from the blood to our cells.

One of the most important characteristics of these postnatal progenitor cells is their close resemblance to the well-known embryonic progenitors of the beta cells. The reason why it took so long to disclose these postnatal progenitors is a combination of their scarcity and the difficulty to recruit them to activity. Heimberg’s team took these hurdles by clamping the channel that drains digestive enzymes from the pancreas causing a regeneration process that activated the progenitor cells. Genetic labeling of these cells allowed their detection and isolation. During the tissue regeneration process, the beta cell mass doubled.

Future research needs to find out whether the progenitor cells also exist in the pancreas of postnatal man and what are the factors that can drive their differentiation to fully functional insulin cells. The main goal is to activate the progenitors by simply applying these factors without injury of the pancreas. Moreover, isolation of stem/progenitor cells from the pancreas of diabetes patients would allow amplification before re-transplantation.

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Indeed, transplantation of beta cells is a successful therapy but can nowadays only be applied to a limited number of patients due to a shortage in donor organs. Generation of large numbers of beta cells from progenitors would facilitate a large-scale transplantation program.

Harry Heimberg | alfa
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