Three Studies Gain Ground in Understanding the Beta Cell

1. Researchers Uncover Gene’s Role in Preventing Beta Cell Death

A JDRF-funded study has established how a gene associated with a rare genetic condition affects the survival of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Findings from the study will help researchers better understand the complex processes regulating beta cell survival and regeneration and could lead to new treatments for type 1 diabetes. The researchers uncovered how a protein associated with a specific gene regulates responses to beta cell stress and helps to maintain beta cell survival. The gene is abnormally expressed in Wolfram syndrome, a rare genetic disease characterized by insulin-dependent diabetes and serious neurologic developments. The researchers had previously shown that mutations in the gene cause Wolfram syndrome, but until now, no one knew precisely how mutations in this gene resulted in diabetes. The study, published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, was led by Fumihiko Urano from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and M. Alan Permutt of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

2. Researchers Identify Gene Critical to Beta Cell Development

Scientists have identified a gene required for cells to differentiate, or mature, into insulin-producing cells and other cell types in the pancreas. The research, co-funded by JDRF, provides important new insights into beta cell development and adds to the prospect of generating an abundant, renewable supply of insulin-producing cells to replace beta cell function in people with type 1 diabetes. The researchers showed that mice lacking a gene called Rfx6 failed to generate insulin-producing beta cells and most other cells in the pancreatic islets. They also found that in people, deficiency of the Rfx6 gene results in diabetes onset in newborns. The study was published in the journal Nature and led by principal investigators Michael S. German from the University of California, San Francisco and Constantin Polychronakos from McGill University in Montreal.

3. Stress Hormone Is Linked to Beta Cell Growth and Function

A hormone responsible for the body’s stress response has been linked to the growth of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, according to JDRF-funded research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. When beta cells were exposed to the hormone (called CRF) and to high levels of sugar, they produced and released insulin and began to proliferate. The findings reinforce the potential of regeneration as a cure for diabetes and provide insights for discovering new approaches to treat the disease. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was led by Wylie Vale, head of the Clayton Laboratories for Peptide Biology, and Mark O. Huising, a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayton Foundation Laboratories.