In a breakthrough that signifies a move toward a cure for type 1 diabetes, researchers in Australia have identified stem cells in the pancreas that can be turned into insulin-producing cells. The finding promises to bring closer the day when people with type 1 diabetes will be able to produce their own insulin in their own regenerated insulin-producing pancreatic cells.

The discovery is the work of scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Parkville, Victoria. They write about their findings in a paper published online in PLoS ONE on 9 November.

Type 1 diabetes is a disease where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Without insulin the body cannot control blood sugar or glucose, which results in serious damage to organs and potentially fatal levels of blood glucose.

Patients with type 1 diabetes have to have several injections of insulin a day, or use an insulin infusion pump, to control their blood glucose. But these methods are not perfect and patients remain at risk of serious long-term health problems.

In their paper, Dr Ilia Banakh and Professor Len Harrison from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s division of Molecular Medicine, and colleagues, describe how they identified and isolated stem cells from the adult pancreas, and then developed a way to coax them into insulin-producing cells that can secrete insulin in response to glucose.

Harrison explains in a separate statement how there have been previous successes at generating insulin-producing cells in the adult pancreas from cells with “stem-like” features, but what excites him about this find is that Banakh has pinpointed “the cell of origin of the insulin-producing cells and shown that the number of these cells and their ability to turn into insulin-producing cells increases in response to pancreas injury”.

The researchers worked first with cells in the “test tube”, and then tested the method in mice:

“Insulin expression was maintained when tissue was transplanted within vascularised chambers into diabetic mice,” they write.

The researchers believe their discovery provides further evidence that stem cells don’t only occur in the embryo and means people with type 1 diabetes may one day be able to regenerate their own insulin-producing cells.

The finding means the potential to regenerate insulin-producing cells is present in all of us, even as adults, says Harrison, a clinician scientist whose work is recognized this month as Diabetes Australia confers the Outstanding Contribution to Diabetes Award on him to mark World Diabetes Day on Thursday 14 November.

“In the long-term, we hope that people with type 1 diabetes might be able to regenerate their own insulin-producing cells. This would mean that they could make their own insulin and regain control of their blood glucose levels, curing their diabetes,” declares Harrison, adding the proviso:

“Of course, this strategy will only work if we can devise ways to overcome the immune attack on the insulin-producing cells, that causes diabetes in the first place.”

Funds from the JDRF, the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia and the Victorian Government helped finance the study.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD