Much of the search for a diabetes cure hinges on a single question: can insulin-producing pancreatic cells regenerate? A study by researchers from McGill University, the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM) has come up with an answer.
The study, published in the July issue of the journal Laboratory Investigation, shows that under laboratory conditions the cells which make up the islets of Langerhans (the part of the pancreas which secretes insulin) can return to a more primitive developmental state called stem-like cells. This process is called “de-differentiation.”
“The potential for de-differentiation of all the different cells that make up the islets of Langerhans is a totally new finding,” says Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, Chief of the Division of Surgical Research and Professor of Surgery and Medicine at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine, and the A.G. Thompson Chair in Surgical Research at the MUHC. Rosenberg and CHUM’s Dr. Bernard Massie were the study’s principal investigators. “At this stage, we can’t confirm whether the cells’ ability to turn into stem-like cells occurs naturally in a healthy pancreas, but the results are very encouraging for the development of regenerative therapies to fight diabetes.”
The cells’ in-vitro plasticity opens up new avenues of investigation into the underlying causes of diabetes. This study is the latest step in an extensive regenerative therapies research program based on a peptide called islet neogenesis associated protein, or INGAP. Rosenberg and his colleagues have demonstrated INGAP’s potential to induce new islet formation in the pancreas. Clinical trials with INGAP have already demonstrated that it is possible to regrow new functional insulin-producing cells in diabetic patients.
“We know that the peptide works, but we are still lacking certain theoretical bases to explain its mechanism,” says Rosenberg. “This finding will allow us to move ahead on firmer ground.”
This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Stem Cell Network of Canada. Additional support was provided with fellowships from the Canadian Diabetes Association/CIHR and the Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec (FRSQ). Dr. Rosenberg was supported as a chercheur national by the FRSQ.