Researchers have spent decades trying to replace the insulin-producing pancreatic cells, called beta cells, that are lost or functionally impaired in diabetes. Now a team of researchers, reporting online on February 18, 2016 in Cell Stem Cell, have discovered that tissue from the lower stomach appears to have greatest potential to be re-programmed into a beta-cell state. The open-access article is titled “Reprogrammed Stomach Tissue As a Renewable Source of Functional Beta-Cells for Blood Glucose Regulation.” The researchers took samples of this tissue from mice and grew the samples into "mini-organs" that produced insulin when transplanted back into the animals. The mini-organs' stem cells also continued to replenish the insulin-producing cell population, giving the tissue a sustainable regenerative boost. To find the body tissue most amenable to re-programming for insulin production, the researchers genetically engineered mice to express three genes that can turn other cell types into beta cells. "We looked all over, from the nose to the tail of the mouse," says senior author Qiao Zhou, Ph.D., of the Harvard University Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. "We discovered, surprisingly, that some of the cells in the pylorus region of the stomach are most amenable to conversion to beta cells. This tissue appears to be the best starting material." The pylorus region connects the stomach to the small intestine. When re-programmed, cells in this area were the most responsive to high glucose levels, producing insulin to normalize the mouse's blood sugar. To test the cells' effectiveness, the researchers destroyed the mice's pancreatic beta cells, forcing their bodies to rely only on the altered stomach cells. Control animals, without tissue re-programming, died within eight weeks.
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