Gut Cells Could Be Used To Produce Insulin For Diabetes Patients

Columbia researchers have conducted a study that suggests cells inside intestines could be employed to make insulin for patients with type I diabetes. Previously, researchers considered stem cell transplants to be the only way to replace lost cells inpatients with type I diabetes. Such a discovery could also mean that these patients would be free from daily insulin injections as well.

Researchers have been conducting their work on mice and published their results in the journal Nature Genetics.

Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys pancreas cells used for producing insulin. Once these cells go missing in the pancreas, patients with the disease have to inject themselves with insulin to keep their blood glucose levels in balance.

In addition, patients must use a glucose meter for diabetes to keep their sugars at an acceptable level.

Scientists have long sought to combat the effects of type I diabetes by creating a cell that will do the work of the pancreas cells by releasing insulin into the blood stream when necessary. Researchers have been able to recreate these types of cells in the lab using stem cells. However, these cells are not yet appropriate for use in diabetes patients because they do not release insulin at the appropriate time. If glucose levels go unchecked and unbalanced, a patient could fall victim to hypoglycemia.

Doctors Chutima Talchai, PhD and Domenico Accili, MD and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center conducted the study on progenitor cells in mice. Their research shows that these cells were able to create insulin-producing cells.

Progenitor cells are like stem cells in that they can be used to recreate other cells. However, they cannot divide and replicate cells indefinitely. Doctors Talchai and Accili used progenitor cells from the gastrointestinal tract, as they have been found to produce cells that can recreate serotonin, gastric inhibitory peptide, and other cells and hormones found in the bloodstream and GI tract.

The doctors found their results by controlling a specific gene that has been found to decide what a cell will be, Foxo1. When this gene was flipped off, the progenitor cells began to produce insulin on their own.

These cells could be dangerous if they did not release the right amount of insulin at the right time, but researchers found that these cells did just that.

The insulin-producing progenitor cells used in the mice effectively regulated glucose levels and produced insulin in sufficient quantity.

This research suggests that insulin-producing cells could be reproduced in the GI tracts of diabetes patients, both pediatric and adult alike.

In the press release for the new findings, Dr. Accili said “Nobody would have predicted this result. Many things could have happened after we knocked out Foxo1. In the pancreas, when we knock out Foxo1, nothing happens. So why does something happen in the gut? Why don´t we get a cell that produces some other hormone? We don´t yet know.”

The next step in the research, according to Dr. Accili, is to find a drug that has the same effects on progenitor cells in humans as flipping off Foxo1 does in mice.

“It´s important to realize that a new treatment for type I diabetes needs to be just as safe as, and more effective than, insulin,” Dr. Accili says. “We can´t test treatments that are risky just to remove the burden of daily injections. Insulin is not simple or perfect, but it works and it is safe.”

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