Human gut cells may be able to produce insulin, providing hope to type 1 diabetics currently controlling their disorder through injections or pills.
Insulin is, normally, a naturally-occurring hormone in the human body. Production of this chemical is reduced or non-existent in patients suffering from type 1 diabetes.
Columbia University researchers have studied gastrointestinal cells located in the human torso. They found that switching off a single gene, called FOXO1, in these structures causes these cells to start producing insulin. This means it is possible a drug may be developed that would "re-train" cells in diabetics to start producing the vital hormone.
The study involved creating a tissue model of a human intestine, using stem cells. These cells were then treated to inhibit the FOXO1 gene. Within a week, they started producing the critical hormone. Best of all, they only did so when provided with sugar, mimicking the body's natural process.
"People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn't gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target," Domenico Accili, of the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), and lead author of an article detailing the discovery, said.
Pancreatic cells are sometimes surgically replaced, using embryonic or stem cells. This new research could greatly reduce the risk those surgeries present. Another challenge with current procedures is the human immune system, which can reject the foreign cells. Re-training a diabetics own cells to produce insulin would prevent rejections, lessening recovery time, and increasing the number of successful patients.
Medical researchers have tried for twenty years to find a way of safely repairing the defective pancreatic beta cells that normally produce insulin. This new discovery could herald a new generation of treatments for diabetics. However, research has only occurred, so far, on human cells in laboratory conditions, and in mice.
Research showing the technique works in mice was announced in 2012, also by Domenico Accili. That study has since been confirmed by independent analysis.
The next step will be finding a drug that inhibits the FOXO1 gene in the human body. Such a drug, once discovered, would need to be tested to be effective and safe for people, a process that could take several years. Accili told reporters he is currently working on such a treatment.
Investigation of insulin, and how it could be produced by the gastrointestinal cells was published in the journal Nature Communications.