Researchers in Austria were able to both identify and isolate adult pancreatic stem cells, and then trigger their transformation into functioning, insulin-producing cells that behaved in response to glucose, Medical News Today reports. After initial success in a test tube, the team also generated promising results in mice.
The work by scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research is highlighted in detail online in PLoS ONE. It isn't new on the surface: Co-author Len Harrison is quoted as noting that others have used cells with "stem-like" features to produce insulin-producing cells in the adult pancreas. What is new, however, is that scientists finally determined a few new things about how to make the process more feasible and functional. They now know, for example, the insulin producing cells' cell of origin. Also, they determined that an injured pancreas boosted the ability of these particular cells to transform into insulin-producing cells.
The finding demonstrates yet another example of the ever-viable adult stem cells' ability, at least in preclinical trials, to help treat illness. And in the case of Type 1 diabetes, such an advance can't come soon enough. As the article explains, Type 1 diabetes is managed with several daily insulin injections or an insulin infusion pump. The key word here is "managed"; patients still suffer long-term health problems, and it would be far better to restore their ability to produce insulin naturally.
But success in a test tube and in mice is a long way from a breakthrough in humans, and many more years of clinical trials and tests will be necessary to reach that point. And results in human testing could produce starkly different outcomes. The finding does generate some real hope, the article reminds us, because it shows we all have at least theoretical potential to regenerate insulin- producing cells. And while stem cell treatments have had mixed results at best, the finding offers promise for a viable alternative to insulin shots for Type 1 diabetes patients.