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Changing It Up

Posted on March 1, 2019

Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have shown for the first time that human cells can change their original function.

The study, performed in conjunction with researchers at the Université de Genève (UNIGE), Harvard Medical School, Universiteit Leiden and the Oregon Stem Cell Center (OHSU), could lead to a new way to treat type 1 diabetes.

Although researchers have known about the ability of stem cells to differentiate into other cell types and are able to manipulate stem cells into different cell types, the predominant school of thought was that the majority of the body’s cells can only develop into the same cell type with the same cell function.

But, the Bergen study shows that more cells can change into other cell types more readily than scientists have thought. It is the first study of its kind in which researchers were able to influence cell signaling to change the original function.

The researchers influenced alpha cells, the glucagon-producing cells in the pancreas, to make insulin instead. They hope that this switch can help those living with type 1 diabetes.

The study authors saw the benefits of the switch in test mice. The researchers transplanted the human cells they had manipulated into the pancreases of mice with diabetes. They observed that the mice recovered from their condition after their transplant and developed the condition once the researchers removed the cells.

The scientists also observed that the cells were more resistant to attacks of the immune system. This is a critical discovery, as type 1 diabetes develops as a result of immune system attacks on certain cells found in the pancreas.

“During type 1 diabetes, the immune system views the beta cells, the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas, as a foreign invader and attacks them,” said Dr. Joel Singer, a New York personal cell physician.

When beta cells do not produce insulin, blood glucose critical for cell function cannot enter the cells. When blood glucose levels rise in the body, it can cause significant damage to the blood vessels, organs, eyes and nerves. Unchecked blood glucose can also cause organ failure, coma and death.

“The inability to regulate blood sugar requires the use of insulin to keep it in check,” Singer said.

Other research into the treatment of type 1 diabetes has used cells taken from other individuals and even deceased donors. While these studies have shown some success, the risk of rejection remained a hurdle for researchers.

By using cells taken directly from the patient being treated, it means that the risk of the body rejecting the modified cells is eliminated.

“The body recognizes its own cells and therefore won’t attempt to kill them off,” Singer said.

The Bergen team feels that their cell function-modifying method can also be a step forward in treating other conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurological disorders.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 1.25 million people are living with type 1 diabetes in the United States. The organization estimates that 40,000 people in the U.S. receive a type 1 diagnosis each year.

Type 1 diabetes can begin at any time, but most people develop the condition before the age of 20.

Alpha and beta cells are not the only cell players in the pancreas involved in the regulation of blood glucose. Delta cells produce somatostatin, a hormone that controls regulation of the alpha and beta cells.

Source: The University of Bergen. “Human cells can change job to fight diabetes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2019.


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