Diabetes researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Harvard University converted adult exocrine cells in the pancreas, which do not normally make insulin, into insulin-producing beta cells that can improve blood sugar levels. The findings, in mice, represent an important achievement in the field of replacement medicine, where a common goal has been to produce specialized “tissue repair cells” from adult cells that are healthy and abundant—exocrine cells, which produce digestive enzymes, make up about 95 percent of the cells in the pancreas.
Using viruses to ferry key regulatory genes into the pancreatic exocrine cells of live mice, the investigators turned off the digestive functions of the exocrine cell and turned on those genes that enable a cell to make insulin. About 20 percent of the virally altered exocrine cells were converted into beta cells that produced insulin, which was enough to reduce blood sugar levels in the diabetic mice to near-normal levels. Ultimately, it took only three genes to initiate the “extreme makeover.” While JDRF did not directly fund this research, JDRF supports Douglas A. Melton, the principal investigator, in other areas of type 1 research. The study was published in the journal Nature.