Swiss researchers have demonstrated a way to cure type I diabetes without cell transplantation. In model mice the reprogrammed non-islet cells from human pancreas
Typically, only pancreatic beta, which lack in people with type I diabetes, cells can produce insulin. Pedro Herrera and colleagues investigated whether human pancreatic alpha and gamma cells from diabetic and non-diabetic donors could be reprogrammed to produce insulin in response to glucose. The authors report that increased expression of two key transcription factors (Pdx1 and MafA) enabled cells to produce insulin — the first direct evidence of plasticity of mature human non-beta pancreatic cells.
Herrera’s team then tested whether these insulin-producing human alpha cells could relieve the clinical signs of type 1 diabetes in mice that lack insulin-secreting beta cells. When insulin-producing alpha cells from multiple donors were transplanted, glucose tolerance, secretion, and blood levels normalised in the mice. The cells continued to secrete insulin for up to six months after transplantation.
These findings provide conceptual evidence for plasticity of human pancreatic cells. Fostering this plasticity to replace missing cell populations could represent a potential treatment for diabetes and other degenerative diseases.