The stem cells that weren't there

Diabetes researchers, investigating how the body supplies itself with insulin, discovered to their surprise that adult stem cells, which they expected to play a crucial role in the process, were nowhere to be found. Many researchers had proposed that adult stem cells develop into insulin-producing cells, called beta cells, in the pancreas.

Instead, the beta cells themselves divide, although slowly, to replenish their own population.

"Ultimately, if diabetes researchers learn how to control insulin production, we can better treat patients who now can't produce insulin--children and adults with type 1 diabetes," said study leader Jake A. Kushner, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "This research tells us that we need to better understand what regulates the growth of beta cells, rather than searching for adult stem cells that give rise to beta cells."

Dr. Kushner's team reported their findings, based on animal studies, in the May issue of Developmental Cell.

The discovery does not have immediate implications for diabetes treatment. Rather, it advances basic knowledge of insulin biology that could form a foundation for eventual therapies.

Currently, patients with type 1 diabetes depend on life-saving insulin injections or medication. Looking to future techniques, medical researchers hope to fulfill a promise of regenerative medicine: restoring the body's ability to produce its own insulin. One solution is to transplant tissues called the islets of langerhans, small masses within the pancreas containing the beta cells that normally secrete insulin. Islet transplants have already been performed experimentally, but typically fail after a few years in a patient's body.

Moreover, islets are taken from cadavers, and supplies are very limited, so researchers are seeking ways to grow islets in the laboratory. Another potential implication of the research is for beta cell re

Contact: John Ascenzi
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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