A part of the pancreas that produces and secretes insulin – and is therefore essential for maintaining normal blood sugar levels or responsible for diabetes – is largely inaccessible. But now, researchers have found a way to study the insulin-producing cells: by transferring them to the eye.

Researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say this technique enables the eye to serve as a sort of window into health reports from the pancreas.

Their findings, which could have a major impact on diabetes research, are published in the journal PNAS.

The Islets of Langerhans are endocrine cells of the pancreas, which means they release insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. After a meal, these cells release insulin into the blood at an amount in direct proportion to the amount of food eaten.

However, in cases of obesity, larger amounts of the hormone insulin are needed to make up for the larger amount of food and sensitivity to the hormone.

By increasing the number of insulin-producing beta-cells, the Islets of Langerhans try to adapt to this condition, the researchers say – a function important to the maintenance of normal blood sugar levels. When this function breaks down, it can lead to diabetes.

Studying the Islets of Langerhans is very difficult, however, because they are deeply embedded in the tissue of the pancreas and they are distributed throughout.

But by transferring the Islet cells to the eye, the research team has found a new way to study them.

Per-Olof Berggren, professor of experimental endocrinology at the Karolinska Institutet, says:

What we’ve done is made the cells optically accessible by grafting a small number of ‘reporter islets’ into the eyes of mice, which allows us to monitor the activity of the pancreas just by looking into the eye.

We’re now able to really study the insulin-producing beta-cells in detail in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

Effectively, the eye becomes a reporter for the pancreas’ activity, and it produces readings under different conditions – in health and disease.

First study author Dr. Erwin Ilegems, from the Rolf Luft Centre, adds:

“The Islets of Langerhans can be visualized repeatedly over a period of several months, and our work shows that during this time, functional and morphological changes occur in them that are identical to those occurring in the pancreas.”

By using this new way of monitoring the pancreas, as well as pharmacological treatment, the researchers say they have been able to reduce food consumption in obese mice, stopping growth in beta-cell population.

This means they can now individually adjust drug doses.

Additionally, they say they will be able to use the system to classify new drug substances that regulate beta-cell function.

Medical News Today recently reported that scientists in the UK are working on developing an artificial pancreas to help reduce the complications of diabetes.