What an incredible transformation: A protein that persuades normal pancreatic cells to make insulin could help people with type 1 diabetes avoid daily injections.
Insulin keeps the amount of glucose in our blood at a safe level. But in type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that makes insulin. Injections of the hormone are then needed to keep blood glucose levels down.
Now, a team led by Juan Dominguez-Bendala at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami, Florida, has transformed non-beta cells in the pancreas into insulin producing cells.
The team added a protein called BMP7, which helps bones to mend, to a soup of pancreatic cells that do not normally produce insulin. This made them produce high amounts of the hormone. And, the cells secreted even more when exposed to glucose (just as beta cells do in healthy individuals).
When the team put treated cells into diabetic mice, whose own beta cells had been destroyed, the cells acted like healthy beta cells.
The team hopes to inject BMP7 directly into pancreases to allow people with type 1 diabetes to make their own insulin. For this to work, immunosuppressive drugs would also be needed to protect cells from the immune system.
Another possibility would be to create new beta cells from donor cells and implant these. Transplants of donated beta cells are done, but only approximately 2% of cells in a pancreas are beta cells (being enough for just one recipient).
The team hopes to use BMP7 to convert the other 98% of donor pancreas cells into beta cells, which they estimate, could provide enough insulin producing cells from a single pancreas for seven people.
Coghlan, A. (2015) Protein Turns Cells Into Insulin Forges. New Scientist. 28 November 2015, p.16.