Toronto University scientists have said that stem cells can be a cure for diabetes, thereby eradicating the need for replacing insulin. The discovery could help scientists develop better treatments for diabetics and basically change the way they think about cell development.
The lead scientists of the study have identified individual cells in the adult mouse pancreas that are capable of making insulin-producing "beta cells." These beta cells make up the tissues in the organ that release insulin and help regulate the body’s blood sugar levels.
If further research proves that the researchers did indeed identify stem cells, the discovery could help scientists develop better treatments for diabetics and basically change the way they think about cell development.
"We are refraining from actually saying that they are bona fide stem cells because in order to actually earn that label, they must be characterized a bit further," says Simon Smukler, who conducted the study at the University of Toronto with fellow PhD student Raewyn Seaberg and supervisor Prof. Derek van der Kooy.
Smukler says the cells identified by the study, to be published Monday in the online edition of Nature Biotechnology, have exhibited one of the two major properties of stem cells: they generate varied cell types. In this case, the cells generated insulin-producing beta cells and -to the researchers’ surprise -neurons, those cells which help the brain and nervous system function.
The existing "dogma" about cell development says there is a distinct group of cells destined to make the brain and another to make the pancreas, Smukler says. This discovery could change all that, he adds, because it shows that a single cell in the pancreas can make both beta cells and nerve cells.
"It was unexpected and intriguing, and kind of neat," he says. Smukler says he’s not sure why that happens, but it’s possible that there could be previously unnoticed cells in the body that make both types of cells.
True stem cells also renew themselves, which Smukler says has yet to be proven in these "precursor" cells, although he’s hoping to further the research.
Clinical studies based on the study are still a long way off, but he says the finding could potentially affect the way diabetes is treated -particularly Type 1 diabetes, where the body doesn’t have enough beta cells to produce insulin. Finding donor tissue for pancreatic cell transplants in Type 1 cases is complicated, he says. But the study could point to alternative -and plentiful -sources of insulin-producing cells.
"The more we learn about the behaviour of these cells and the characteristics of these cells, and the more we learn what signals trigger and effect their behaviour … then it raises the possibility of perhaps being able to manipulate these cells and send them signals without actually removing them from the tissue." Online edition of Nature Biotechnology Aug 30,2004
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