Scientists from the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have conclusively confirmed that progenitor cells within the pancreas of patients with diabetes continue to exist regardless of the duration of the disease. These findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), open the door to developing regenerative cell therapies for those living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Like stem cells, progenitor cells have the ability to differentiate into a specific type of cell, including insulin-producing islet cells. The notion that the pancreas harbors progenitor cells with the potential to regenerate islets has been hypothesized for decades, but the theory has remained contentious among scientists.
Now, for the first time, DRI researchers have been able to map out the location of these progenitors at the single-cell level within the pancreas.
“Our study goes beyond a mere theoretical exercise in bioinformatics. We confirmed our conclusions experimentally by transplanting the cells predicted to be progenitors and witnessing how they developed into functional pancreatic mini organs,” said Juan Dominguez-Bendala, Ph.D., director of pancreatic stem cell development for translational research at the DRI and co-principal investigator of the study alongside Ricardo Pastori, Ph.D., director of molecular biology.
“By characterizing these cells and showing that they exist in patients, no matter how long they’ve had the disease, our research paves the way to potential therapeutic interventions to ‘reawaken’ them inside the pancreas and stimulate the regeneration of the insulin-producing cells,” said Dr. Pastori.
The teams of Dr. Pastori and Dominguez-Bendala investigated nearly 5,000 individual cells from the pancreases of human donors. Their data confirm the paradigm-shifting notion that progenitor cells can regenerate into cells with distinct functions. Their analysis also suggested that a subpopulation of progenitor-like cells could actively differentiate into islet cells.
These significant findings address a major challenge that stands in the way of discovering a biological cure for the disease.
In type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas have been mistakenly destroyed by the immune system, requiring patients to manage their blood sugar levels through a daily regimen of insulin therapy. Regenerating a patient’s own insulin-producing cells could be an efficient and safe solution for patients that would not require the harsh drugs of immunosuppressive therapy.
Read the published article in PNAS at https://www.pnas.org/content/117/20/10876.