Diabetes is a devastating condition, especially where a person is dependent on insulin to live. For this reason, it is a key area of stem cell research. In one recent experiment, scientists found stem cells in the pancreas of mice, which could support the growth of the cells responsible for producing insulin.
What is Diabetes?
Within the body, beta cells produce insulin to help regulate a person’s blood sugar. For insulin-dependent diabetes, these beta cells are destroyed and as a result, they take regular insulin injections to keep their blood sugar in a normal, healthy range.
For type 1 diabetics, the pancreas has lost virtually all ability for insulin production. Some diabetics have received transplantation of islet cells, of which beta cells are one part. Unfortunately, there are few donors, which limits the procedure.
The Role of Stem Cells in the Pancreas
In terms of stem cells in the pancreas, there has previously been debate over what role, if any, they play. In one study, researchers found that the primary source of newer beta cells was not stem cells.
Instead, they were beta cells already existing in the body. This led to a conclusion that if stem cells weren’t contributing to new beta cells, there was no need to investigate further.
Understanding Pancreatic Stem Cells
In this new study, researchers believe they have now found convincing evidence that stem cells do exist. Also, these stem cells can be activated through ‘damage’ to lead to the production of new, functional beta cells.
They hope the results will help us find ways to regenerate beta cells, allowing the body of a diabetic to produce insulin on its own. As mentioned, there has been a search for some time to locate stem cells in the pancreas, but this study is one of the first to offer hope that stem cells do exist there and could be important.
For this study, researchers used mice; they severed the duct responsible for draining digestive enzymes. After two weeks had passed, they found that the beta cell numbers in the pancreas had doubled. Also, the mice had begun to produce a greater amount of insulin.
Supporting New Treatments for Diabetes
The conclusion was that specific damage seemed to trigger the production of stem cells. These stem cells were nearly the same as the beta cells. What is means is that there is some sort of stem cell repair mechanism inside the pancreas. If researchers can learn more about how it works, they will be better equipped to create treatments that can trigger the body to increase its stem cells and beta cells.
Stem Cells to Treat Diabetes
Still, a treatment is far away because we still must identify all the factors that lead to the multiplication and specialised development of stem cells in the pancreas. If this becomes a reality though, it could mean stimulating the cells in such a way that a diabetic can produce his or her own insulin again. For diabetics who depend on insulin injections each day, this is positive news.