Graduate students at the University of Toronto have boosted hopes for an effective diabetes treatment after growing insulin-producing tissue from the single cell of a mouse pancreas.
At first blush, the result may appear to be mainly big news for diabetic mice. But there has been considerable debate in the science world as to whether the pancreas of any mammal, mouse or human, has the biological goods to generate new insulin-producing cells.
So far, no experiment has proved that the pancreas contains stem cells, those promising and controversial cells capable of growing into any tissue type in the body, making the Toronto study an exciting lead in finding an abundant insulin-cell source for transplant into diabetes patients, reported The Globe and Mail.
More than two million Canadians have diabetes and the number is expected to climb to three million by the end of the decade as the population ages and grows fatter.
Diabetes already contributes to the deaths of 41,500 Canadians each year, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association.
With type 1 diabetes, the cells in the pancreas that make insulin are destroyed by a faulty immune response and people need daily insulin injections to survive.
In type II diabetes, the cells aren't lost, but become more and more dysfunctional and unable to secrete enough insulin to keep a person's blood sugar under control.
Another hope presented by the discovery is to use drugs to coax these dormant cells into making insulin while they're still in the body. That would eliminate the need for transplants and reduce the risk of rejection, because the cells would come from the patient's own body.
In a startling finding, the Canadian team discovered the pancreatic cells made not only insulin-secreting cells, but neurons too, a discovery that flouts the dogma that a group of cells decide early on in their life whether they will make a brain or pancreas, but not both, according to The Edmonton Journal.
The discovery of these potential pancreatic stem cells could prove important for diabetics who take insulin to compensate for defective pancreatic islets, which are made up mostly of beta cells. Pancreatic islets release insulin to help regulate blood sugar levels in the body.
"People have been intensely searching for pancreatic stem cells for a while now, and so our discovery of precursor cells within the adult pancreas that are capable of making new pancreatic cells is very exciting," researcher Simon Smukler, from the university's department of medical genetics and microbiology, said in a prepared statement.
The next step in their research, he added, is to prove that these precursor cells really are stem cells.
The study was published Aug. 22 in the online edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology, told HealthDayNews.