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Issue 106 Item 5 Gene’s Discovery Leads to New Diabetes Treatment?

Apr 22, 2002

Finding of third key regulator gene could make current transplant therapy obsolete The discovery of another gene believed to be critical in insulin production could lead to a new way to treat diabetes.

Researchers at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston say they have isolated and cloned the third and remaining gene believed to be a key regulator of insulin production.

The finding may enable researchers to use the trio of genes to encourage insulin production in stem cells or other cells that don’t normally make insulin. Those cells could be transplanted into the pancreases of people with Type I diabetes.

Scientists have known for about eight years the identities of two genes that can influence the production of insulin, a hormone that converts blood sugar (glucose) into fuel for the body’s cells. The absence of either of those genes results in abnormal development of the pancreas or insulin-producing cells, resulting in diabetes.

Previous research suggested a third gene played a critical role in insulin production.

This third gene also is important for insulin-producing cells to sense changes in glucose levels and appropriately regulate insulin production, the Joslin researchers say.

Their findings appeared in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

An estimated 17 million Americans have diabetes. About 1 million of those have Type I diabetes, in which the body has lost the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas’ islet cells, and the person needs daily insulin injections to survive.

Islet cell transplants are seen as a way to treat people with Type I diabetes. This experimental procedure has a gradually improving success rate but there’s a major barrier — an inadequate supply of islet beta cells.

Only about 3,000 to 4,000 pancreases are available for transplant each year, and it takes two pancreases to harvest enough islet beta cells for a single transplant. That means that once the islet beta cell transplant method is perfected, the demand will far exceed the supply, the Joslin researchers say.

And that’s why finding this third gene is so important, the researchers add. Instead of relying on islet beta cells from donor pancreases, scientists may be able to create insulin-producing cells to transplant into the pancreases of people with Type I diabetes. SOURCE: May 14, 2002, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences