Sleeping beta cells might be reawoken

Type 1 diabetics have ‘sleeping’ insulin cells which could be woken, say scientists, according to a report in The Telegraph by its Science Editor Sarah Knapton.

Scientists discovered that many of their insulin-producing cells are not dead, only dormant. For along while scientists thought that people developed Type 1 after the number of insulin producing cells dropped by around 90%. But a new study suggests that is only the case for very young people. After the age of six, many of the cells are still present, they have just stopped functioning. Researchers at the University of Exeter believe it may be possible to awaken the dormant cells and reverse the disease. Professor Noel Morgan of Exeter University Medical School has said, “This is incredibly exciting, and could open the doors to new treatments for young people who develop diabetes. It was previously thought that teenagers with Type 1 diabetes had lost around 90% of their beta cells but, by looking in their pancreas, we have discovered that this is not true. In fact, those diagnosed in their teens still have many beta cells left – this suggests that the cells are dormant, but not dead. If we can find a way to reactivate these cells so that they resume insulin release, we may be able to slow or even reverse progression of the disease.”

The British team worked with scientists at the University of Oslo to look at nearly 400 pancreas samples from people with Type 1 diabetes. The samples showed the first evidence that children who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of six years or under develop a more aggressive form of the disease. A condition known as insulitis, representing an inflammatory process, kills off nearly all the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas of the young children. But the progression of the disease is radically different in those diagnosed as teenagers or beyond, who retain unexpectedly large numbers of beta cells at diagnosis – up to 50% are still present, although they are no longer working as they should.

Now that scientists know that the insulin producing cells are not lost, just inactive, they can start looking for ways to switch them back on.

Karen Addington, UK Chief Executive of Type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, said: “A child diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of five faces up to 19,000 insulin injections and 50,000 finger-prick blood tests before they reach the age of 18. But research can bring us closer to the day we find the cure.”

Dr Sarah Richardson, of the University of Exeter Medical School was co-author on the study. She said: “For trials to be effective, we have to understand the underlying causes of the disease. Our next step is to investigate why diabetes progresses differently in younger and older children, with a view to understanding how we could treat both groups more effectively.”
The research was published in the journal Diabetes.

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