SAN DIEGO, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Researchers said this week that adult stem cells in the pancreas can be transformed into insulin-producing cells.
This newfound ability of endocrine progenitor stem cells in the adult human pancreas provides a major key to developing new treatments for diabetes, said researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and the Rebecca and John Moores Cancer Center at the University of California at San Diego.
The findings will be published in the March 1 edition of Nature Medicine.
"We hypothesized that the inductive factors in developing pancreatic cells might work on cells in the adult pancreas and that turned out to be true," said Fred Levine, adjunct professor at the Burnham.
"We have shown, in as rigorous a manner as possible, proof-of-concept for the existence of progenitor stem insulin-producing cells within the adult human pancreas. Our proven ability to transform these progenitor stem cells into insulin-producing cells greatly expands the possibility that beta cell regeneration therapies can be developed for the treatment of diabetes," he said.
"Prior to our study, it was thought that replication of beta cells arising from injury to the pancreas was the only regenerative source of beta cells in the adult pancreas. We now know that we have another, potentially more abundant, reservoir," Levine said.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterized by the loss and dysfunction of insulin-producing cells, also known as beta cells, the researchers said.
In the current study, researchers developed rigorous purification and cell culture techniques and used them to glean adult human pancreatic cells, incapable of producing insulin, which they called "non-endocrine pancreatic epithelial cells", or NEPECS.
To find out if this cell population could be induced to produce insulin, they labeled the NEPECS with genetic markers and combined them with developing pancreatic cells known to be a rich source of endocrine progenitor cells and growth factors that spur the progenitor cells' development into insulin-producing beta cells.
The cells were then transplanted into mice, and after three months, tissue from the mice was examined. The researchers found that the NEPECS labeled with the genetic marker included insulin-producing beta cells.