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New research reveals the importance of a well-balanced mix of beta cells


Research we're funding sheds light on how the balance of different types of insulin-producing beta cells is key to blood sugar control.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the beta cells in the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range. There are different types of beta cells. Mature beta cells make up the majority and produce high levels of insulin. Immature beta cells produce very little insulin and were previously thought to be bystanders and not play an important role in blood sugar control. However, new research has found that immature and mature beta cells work together in balance to control the release insulin.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, a research team led by our researcher Professor David Hodson found that insulin release depends on having the right balance of mature and immature beta cells. Professor Hodson and Dr Daniela Nasteska found that increasing the proportion of mature beta cells reduced the amount of insulin released. When the balance between mature and immature beta cells was restored, insulin release returned to healthy levels. This was the case even when beta cells were responding to high blood sugar levels, as is seen in type 2 diabetes. 

The findings from the study show for the first time the important role that immature beta cells play in the control of insulin release. This could pave the way for identifying new ways to support the healthy release of insulin. It could also help scientists build better beta cells in labs, to then transplant into people living with diabetes.

David Hodson is Professor of Cellular Metabolism and Deputy Director of the IMSR at the University of Birmingham. He said:

“Contrary to expectation, we found that relatively immature beta cells are not poorly functional bystanders, but rather cooperate with their more mature counterparts to drive insulin release. Thus, it seems that the islet is a bit like society — it needs individuals of all ages to be properly functional.”

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