The finding may bring closer the day when people with type 1 diabetes will be able to produce their own insulin and not have to inject it.
In their paper, Dr. Ilia Banakh and Professor Len Harrison from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's division of Molecular Medicine, and colleagues, describe how they identified and isolated stem cells from the adult pancreas, and then developed a way to coax them into insulin-producing cells that can secrete insulin in response to glucose.
Harrison explains in a separate statement how there have been previous successes at generating insulin-producing cells in the adult pancreas from cells with "stem-like" features, but what excites him about this find is that Banakh has pinpointed "the cell of origin of the insulin-producing cells and shown that the number of these cells and their ability to turn into insulin-producing cells increases in response to pancreas injury."
The researchers worked first with cells in the "test tube," and then tested the method in mice:
"Insulin expression was maintained when tissue was transplanted within vascularised chambers into diabetic mice," they write.
The researchers believe their discovery provides further evidence that stem cells don't only occur in the embryo and means people with type 1 diabetes may one day be able to regenerate their own insulin-producing cells.
The finding means the potential to regenerate insulin-producing cells is present in all of us, even as adults, says Harrison, a clinician scientist whose work is recognized was conferred the Outstanding Contribution to Diabetes Award.
"In the long-term, we hope that people with type 1 diabetes might be able to regenerate their own insulin-producing cells. This would mean that they could make their own insulin and regain control of their blood glucose levels, curing their diabetes," declares Harrison, adding that, "Of course, this strategy will only work if we can devise ways to overcome the immune attack on the insulin-producing cells, that causes diabetes in the first place."
Funds from the JDRF, the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and the Victorian Government helped finance the study.
"Adult Pancreas Side Population Cells Expand after β Cell Injury and Are a Source of Insulin-Secreting Cells"; Banakh I, Gonez LJ, Sutherland RM, Naselli G, Harrison LC; PLoS ONE 7(11): e48977, published online 9 Nov 2012; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0048977;