Study provides hope into rehabilitating beta cells

Researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) are comparing the pancreas of healthy organ donors and those with type 1 diabetes to work out how beta cells can be rehabilitated, according to Medical News Today.

The study shows that many beta cells, which normally produce insulin, are still present in the early stages of the condition but look very different. These beta cells could potentially be rescued for the benefit of the patient and the progression of the disease could be slowed down or even stopped.

The pancreatic islets of Langerhans play a key role when it comes to regulating how the body metabolizes glucose. The beta cells located there monitor the blood glucose levels and secrete insulin as required. Insulin in turn triggers the uptake of glucose into cells. In people living with type 1 diabetes, these beta cells are attacked and destroyed by the body’s own white blood cells.

Research only possible with donated organs

Little is known about what happens inside the pancreas when diabetes develops since performing biopsies or high resolution imaging of the organ is not feasible when patients are alive.

“Much of what we know about type 1 diabetes in humans is based on pancreases from organ donors, and these are very rare,” says Prof Bernd Bodenmiller from the Institute of Quantitative Biomedicine at the University of Zurich.

This is why researchers are keen to gain as many insights as possible from every single organ that is donated.

Wealth of information from a single sample

Prof Bodenmiller and his team, working together with research groups in Geneva and the US, have now for the first time used imaging mass cytometry to investigate donated pancreases:

“This allows us to visualize beta cells, other types of cells in the Langerhans islets as well as invading immune cells at the same time,” says Prof Bodenmiller about the advantages of the method. “This has previously not been possible using traditional approaches.”

For their study Prof Nicolas Damond, first author of the publication from the Institute of Quantitative Biomedicine, analyzed 12 donated pancreases – four from healthy donors, four from patients in the early stages of type 1 diabetes and four from patients with advanced type 1 diabetes.

The scientists used the findings to develop a map that shows the location of the different cell types in the pancreatic islets and the state the beta cells were in.

Starting point to develop therapy for early stages of diabetes

Prof Damond then compiled the data from the various donated organs in a pseudo timeline. This allowed him to reconstruct the changes in the pancreatic tissue from the onset of type 1 diabetes right up to the final stages of the disease.

One of the findings was particularly interesting: There was still a surprisingly high number of beta cells in the pancreatic islets of Langerhans during the disease’s early stages.

These cells might look different and produce less insulin than healthy cells, but they could possibly still be saved from complete destruction.

“If we succeed in stopping the autoimmune attack this early, the cells could maybe regain their function and help with regulating the blood glucose levels of patients,” says Prof Damond.

New insights into autoimmunity

Through imaging mass cytometry the research group also located the special type of white blood cells which, according to current scientific knowledge, are responsible for beta cell destruction.

The researchers found these immune cells mainly in the pancreases of patients in early stages of the disease, especially in pancreatic islets that contained a high number of surviving beta cells. Pancreatic islets whose beta cells had been mostly destroyed, in contrast, had fewer white blood cells.

These results could help to shed light on the mechanism of the autoimmune reaction, about which there are currently still many open questions.

“Our study demonstrates that imaging mass cytometry can make a valuable contribution to a better understanding of how type 1 diabetes progresses. It provides a basis for planning further experiments and developing new hypotheses,” said Prof Bodenmiller.

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