Researchers discovered that adult mice pancreas harbor stem cells with the capacity to generate new insulin-producing beta cells. “One of the most interesting characteristics of these adult progenitor cells is that they are almost indistinguishable from embryonic progenitors,” says Harry Heimberg, M.D., Ph.D., of the JDRF Center at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. “In terms of their structure and gene expression, there are no major differences. They look and behave just like embryonic beta cell progenitors.”
In the new study, Dr. Heimberg’s team tied off a duct that drains digestive enzymes from the pancreas. That injury led to a doubling of beta cells in the pancreas within two weeks. The animals’ pancreases also began producing more insulin, evidence that the new beta cells were fully functional, Dr. Heimberg explains. He suspects the regenerative process is sparked by an inflammatory response in the enzyme-flooded pancreas.
They further found that the production of new beta cells depends on a gene called Neurogenin 3 (Ngn3), which is known to play a role in the pancreas during embryonic development.
The study will be reported in the January 25 issue of Cell.