Pancreas Cells Show Potential to Spontaneously Change into Insulin-Producing Cells

Some cells in the pancreas appear to have transformational properties. JDRF-funded researchers led by Pedro Herrera at the University of Geneva in Switzerland have shown that “alpha cells” in the pancreas—specialized cells that produce glucagon, not insulin—can spontaneously convert into insulin-producing beta cells. While these changes took place under very specific experimental conditions in mice, the study advances the prospect of regenerating beta cells as a cure for type 1 diabetes. It points to an unexpected “plasticity,” or potential, of pancreas cells to adapt and produce insulin when they must—in this case, when the beta cells that normally produce insulin were entirely killed off. Ultimately, scientists may be able to harness this conversion potential to regenerate beta cells in people with diabetes. Dr. Herrera’s results are the first to show that beta cell reprogramming can occur spontaneously, without genetic manipulation. Previous efforts to reprogram non-beta cells into beta cells relied on altering genes—processes that cannot be easily translated into therapies for people. The study was published in the journal Nature.