Simply put, people develop diabetes because they don't have enough pancreatic beta cells to produce the insulin necessary to regulate their blood sugar levels. But what if other cells in the body could be coaxed into becoming pancreatic beta cells? Could we potentially cure diabetes? Researchers from UCLA's Larry L. Hillblom Islet Research Center have taken an important step in that direction. They report in the April 19, 2011 issue of the journal Developmental Cell that they may have discovered the underlying mechanism that could convert other cell types into pancreatic beta cells. While the current standard of treatment for diabetes — insulin therapy — helps patients maintain sugar levels, it isn't perfect, and many patients remain at high risk of developing a variety of medical complications. Replenishing lost beta cells could serve as a more permanent solution, both for those who have lost such cells due to an immune assault (Type 1 diabetes) and those who acquire diabetes later in life due to insulin resistance (Type 2). "Our work shows that beta cells and related endocrine cells can easily be converted into each other," said study co-author Dr. Anil Bhushan, an associate professor of medicine in the endocrinology division at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and in the UCLA Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology. It had long been assumed that the identity of cells was "locked" into place and that they could not be switched into other cell types. But recent studies have shown that some types of cells can be coaxed into changing into others — findings that have intensified interest in understanding the mechanisms that maintain beta cell identity.
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