Regeneration of insulin-producing islets may lead to diabetes cure

Cells from an unexpected source, the spleen, appear to develop into insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells in adult animals. This surprising finding from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, published in the Nov. 14 issue of Science, is a followup to the same team's 2001 report of a treatment that cures advanced type 1 diabetes in mice. In discovering the biological mechanism behind that accomplishment, the researchers also have opened a potential new approach to replacing diseased organs and tissues using adult precursor cells.

"We have found that it is possible to rapidly regrow islets from adult precursor cells, something that many thought could not be done," says Denise Faustman, MD, PhD, director of the MGH Immunobiology Laboratory and principal investigator of the study. "By accomplishing effective, robust and durable islet regeneration, this discovery opens up an entirely new approach to diabetes treatment."

David M. Nathan, MD, director of the MGH Diabetes Center, notes, "These exciting findings in a mouse model of Type 1 diabetes suggest that patients who are developing this disease could be rescued from further destruction of their insulin-producing cells. In addition, patients with fully established diabetes possibly could have their diabetes reversed." Nathan has developed a protocol to test this approach in patients, but additional grant support is needed before a clinical trial can begin. Type 1 diabetes develops when the body's immune cells mistakenly attack the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas. As islet cells die, insulin production ceases, and blood sugar levels rise, damaging organs throughout the body. In their earlier study, Faustman's team directly attacked this process by retraining the immune system not to attack islet cells. They first used a naturally occurring protein, TNF-alpha, to destroy the mistargeted cells. Then they injected the mice with donor spleen cells from nondiabet

Contact: Sue McGreevey
Massachusetts General Hospital

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