New study shows it may be possible to turn pancreatic cells into insulin producers in people with type 1 diabetes

A team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) may have discovered a mechanism that could turn cells in the pancreas into insulin-producing beta cells, thereby eliminating the need to take insulin injections among individuals with type 1 diabetes.

The researchers reported in the journal Cell Development that it may be possible to flip a chemical switch that would alter the DNA structure of pancreatic cells and coax them into developing into beta cells.

While it was widely assumed that the ultimate identity of most types of cells is set from the moment of their development, recent investigations have shown that cells in many areas of the body may be able to alter their function. Building off of this research, the UCLA team speculated that pancreatic cells may be more variable than previously thought.

In analyzing pancreatic tissue, the researchers found that chemical markers known as methyl groups bind to DNA and control the activity of certain genes. In particular, they observed that this process can keep the ARX gene silent.

This gene has been shown to instruct newly formed pancreatic cells to develop into alpha cells - which produce glucagon, a hormone that has the opposite function of insulin - rather than beta cells. By controlling this methylation process, the researchers believe they can predetermine the fate of pancreatic cells.

"We show that the basis for this conversion depends not on genetic sequences but on modifications to the DNA that dictates how the DNA is wrapped within the cell," said Anil Bhushan, who led the research. "We think this is crucial to understanding how to convert a variety of cell types, including stem cells, into functional beta cells."

While the development of techniques that target this process to produce more beta cells may be years away, it could eventually help millions of people with type 1 diabetes become less dependent on insulin injections.