University of Toronto researchers have discovered potential stem cells in the pancreas – a finding that offers hope to the millions of diabetics worldwide who take insulin injections.
The researchers identified cells in the adult mouse pancreas capable of generating insulin-producing “beta cells.” “People have been intensely searching for pancreatic stem cells for a while now, and so our discovery of precursor cells within the adult pancreas that are capable of making new pancreatic cells is very exciting,” says Simon Smukler, a PhD candidate in U of T’s department of medical genetics and microbiology, who conducted the study along with U of T MD/PhD candidate Raewyn Seaberg and their supervisor, Professor Derek van der Kooy. The scientists are now hoping to extend their research to prove that these beta cells are truly stem cells.
A finding Smukler considers equally exciting is their discovery that these pancreatic cells generated both neurons – cells associated with the workings of the brain and the nervous system – and beta cells. “The existing dogma states that fairly early in development, there is a distinction made between a group of cells destined to make the brain and another group destined to make the pancreas,” he says. “The idea that a single cell within the pancreas could make both beta cells and neurons is intriguing.”