Researchers were surprised to find cells in the adult human pancreas responsible for the creation of beta cells that produce insulin. They hope the discovery will lead to new treatments for diabetes. Photo by Piotr Adamowicz/Shutterstock
TAMPA, Fla., Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Researchers have found cells that express neurogenin 3, or NGN3 -- which drives development of the beta cells that make and secrete insulin -- are present in the adult pancreas, opening the possibility of harnessing the gene will need to new diabetes treatments.
In type 1 diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by the immune system requiring patients to inject insulin to control blood glucose. In patients with type 2 diabetes, the body produces insulin but it is not used properly, also requiring insulin be injected into the body.
NGN3-expressing cells, while vital to the development of the endocrine pancreas, were found by researchers in the exocrine pancreas -- the part of the pancreas that produces digestive enzymes -- in pancreatic biopsies of living adult humans, as well as in biopsies of donated organs.
"NGN3 expression in the adult pancreas was unexpected, because it cannot be detected in the adult rodent pancreas -- only during fetal development," said Dr. Michael Shamblott, the chair of pediatrics in the Children's Research Institute at the University of South Florida, in a press release.
NGN3-expressing cells closely match human endocrine progenitor cells, which can develop into cells in the pancreas called islets. These cells can be coaxed to resemble the beta cells that produce and secrete insulin to control blood glucose levels.
In the lab, researchers found the cells could be coaxed into resembling the beta cells that produce insulin.
While previous studies have shown that islet transplants can be successful, including a recently-launched trial that resulted in one woman no longer needing insulin therapy, the surgeries have proven to be difficult. Part of this is because of the need for large numbers of the cells to be produced by donors and immunosuppressive drugs often being required because of mismatched tissues from donors to patients.
"Now that we know these NGN3 cells are a normal part of adult human pancreas biology, we can learn to increase them and to coax them towards becoming differentiated pancreatic endocrine cells by using specific drugs," Shamblott said. "Our goal is to regenerate functional beta cells that can cure diabetes."
The researchers said they have discovered pathways that regulate the gene in the adult pancreas, which Shamblott said could be the targets for future drug treatments to motivate the growth of new beta cells in patients.
The study is published in PLOS ONE.