The destruction of a single kind of insulin-producing cell in the pancreas can lead to diabetes – but a study suggests that other cells could be modified to take its place and help to control blood sugar levels.
In a study published on 13 February in Nature1, researchers report coaxing human pancreatic cells that don’t normally make insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose in the blood, to change their identity and begin producing the hormone.
“I think this has got huge potential,” says Terence Herbert, a biologist at the University of Lincoln, UK. But it is still early days, he says, with several hurdles to overcome before the technique can be used in the clinic.
Inês Cebola, an islet biologist at Imperial College London, is intrigued that pancreatic cells can be convinced to produce insulin without actually becoming proper β-cells. “That’s quite striking.”
Diego Balboa Alonso, an islet biologist at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, agrees. The latest work demonstrates that there is much more plasticity in the hormonal system of the human pancreas than was previously thought, he says. “I think it’s a beautiful study showing this idea.”