A new study by researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute (Sanford-Burnham) in La Jolla, California, has found that a peptide called caerulein can convert existing cells in the pancreas into those cells destroyed in type 1 diabetes-insulin-producing beta cells. The study, published online July 31, 2014 open-access article in Cell Death and Disease, suggests a new approach to treating the estimated 3 million people in the U.S., and over 300 million worldwide, living with type 1 diabetes. "We have found a promising technique for type 1 diabetics to restore the body's ability to produce insulin. By introducing caerulein to the pancreas, we were able to generate new beta cells—the cells that produce insulin—potentially freeing patients from daily doses of insulin to manage their blood-sugar levels." said Fred Levine, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Sanford Children's Health Research Center at Sanford-Burnham. The study first examined how mice in which almost all beta cells were destroyed—similar to humans with type 1 diabetes—responded to injections of caerulein. In those mice, but not in normal mice, they found that caerulein caused existing alpha cells in the pancreas to differentiate into insulin-producing beta cells. Alpha cells and beta cells are both endocrine cells meaning they synthesize and secrete hormones—and they exist right next to one another in the pancreas in structures called islets. However, alpha cells do not normally become beta cells. The research team then examined human pancreatic tissue from type 1 diabetics, finding strong evidence that the same process induced by caerulein also occurred in the pancreases of those individuals.
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