Genetic 'Switch' Can Trigger Insulin-Producing Cells
According to researchers, when Pax4 is forced on pancreatic alpha cells, the cells can change their identity to become beta cells. The body then senses the loss of alpha cells, replaces them with new alpha cells and then converts those into beta cells too.
The significance of the findings lies in the possibility that they may eventually apply to human patients, though many questions have yet to be answered. Even if the findings do translate to humans, scientists would need to find a way to turn Pax4 on and then off again once a sufficient number of beta cells were in place.
In type I diabetes, the body essentially makes a mistake and autodestructs beta cells. When those cells are lost, insulin levels drop and blood sugar soars – a condition that can lead to complications including blindness and even death.
Though insulin-replacing injections can improve the situation, people with the condition are still left with fluctuations in blood sugar depending on their diet, exercise, and other factors that can lead to health complications.
Researchers also previously discovered that another factor that works against Pax4 action, could turn beta cells into alpha cells. Alpha cells produce the hormone glucagen when blood sugar levels are too low, causing the liver to release stored glucose.
This discovery suggested that the reverse conversion might also be achieved. And with this study, researchers have found it can. Mice with activated Pax4 genes in pancreatic cells end up with an eight-fold increase in the number of beta cells.