About two years ago, I went to a research briefing sponsored by the JDRF that featured their new Director of Research, Dr. Richard Insel. Among other research projects, Dr. Insel described to us the JDRF’s work on beta cell regeneration. It’s back in the news these days and here’s what it means in plain English (as I understand it):
We all know that certain animals can regenerate body parts – lizards, for example, can grow a new tail – and human bodies regularly regenerate cells, especially hair or skin or nails. We know that when a person becomes obese, the pancreas will expand to cover the extra hundred pounds. Likewise, a pregnant woman’s pancreas will expand to cover the baby. There is some sort of chemical trigger which sends a signal to the pancreas to expand at a greater-than-normal rate. In the rest of us non-obese non-pregnant people, our pancreas regenerates beta cells, which produce insulin, at a rate of 20 percent per year. That means that normally, within five years our entire stock of beta cells has replenished itself.
What the JDRF is trying to do is isolate that chemical trigger which causes the pancreas to expand, because that could be used to trigger the growth of beta cells, which produce insulin. A shot of this chemical could spur beta cell regeneration in people with diabetes – no need for stem cells or transplants.
Dr. Insel went on to explain that in autopsies of people who had lived with diabetes for most of their lives, there was evidence of young beta cells in the pancreas. This means that their bodies were continuing to regenerate beta cells, but that the immune system was knocking the beta cells out once they got to a certain point. (Why the immune system mistakenly attacks these cells in the first place, of course, is the great mystery of diabetes).
New research from the Larry Hillblom Islet Research Center at UCLA confirms this. Pancreatic secretions from 42 people with long-standing diabetes were studied, and 88 percent of them contained beta cells that had been recently destroyed by the immune system. Peter Butler, one of the lead researchers, explained, “It was previously thought that people with long-standing Type I diabetes have no ability to replace their beta cells. Our studies suggest that they appear to continue to make new beta cells, but unfortunately, these get killed. If these new cells could be protected, diabetes could be, at least in part, reversed.”
He said diabetes could be reversed.
The big question, of course, is how to stop the immune system from lopping off those beta cells in people with diabetes. There’s news on that front, too. Stay tuned …