Transplanted Beta Cells are Learning to Protect Themselves

Islet Cell and Regenerative Biology for DiabetesA small number of people with Type 1 diabetes have undergone beta cell transplants.

Research development may aid in future transplants, according to the people at the Joslin Diabetes Center’s  Research Section on Islet Cell and Regenerative Biology.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly attacks insulin-producing beta cells. Insulin, of course, is needed to regulate the sugar in the blood and to live. Some scientists have combined transplanted beta cells with immunosuppressant drugs as a way to treat a small number of people with diabetes. However, that surgery can produce mixed results and comes with its own risks.

The insulin-producing cells are tucked into the liver rather than the pancreas. There they are a bit short on oxygen and blood and they are often exposed to raised levels of glucose. However, new research shows that the cells can protect themselves by actively adapting to their new homes.

Researchers looked at a cellular stress mechanism called the unfolded protein response or endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress response in beta cells. This response is triggered when the ER, part of the cell’s protein assembly line, struggles to fold newly formed proteins into their exactly right shapes. Earlier studies suggested this process contributes to the high mortality and low insulin production often displayed in beta cell transplants. In previous research reported last month, scientists looked at healthy human beta cells from surgical donors  and compared them with beta cells that had been transplanted into mice with suppressed immune systems. They found that the transplanted cells strongly activate genes that help to guard against damage from ER stress, and suppress other genes that may trigger cellular attempts to self-destruct.

This finding could, someday, be used to develop treatments for people with Type 1 diabetes.