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Research shows promise to restore beta cells and offer type 1 diabetes treatment hope

woman injecting insulin

Australian scientists have explored a new approach to restore insulin-producing cells, opening the door to potential new treatments that could eliminate the need for regular insulin injections in type 1 diabetes. 

Scientists at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne have used two existing cancer drugs to manipulate other cells in the pancreas to turn into insulin-producing beta cells.  

In people with type 1 diabetes, beta cells are destroyed by the immune system leaving them unable to produce the insulin they need to live. In the quest to cure type 1 diabetes scientists are exploring ways to give people with type 1 diabetes new beta cells. One possible way to do this is by encouraging the body to grow new beta cells so it can make its own supply of insulin again.  

This could reduce or eliminate the need for people with type 1 diabetes to inject insulin or use pumps. 

The research is in its early days, with the team now planning to explore the safety and effects of the beta cell regeneration drugs in further studies.  

Why the research could be significant 

In the study, researchers tested two cancer drugs are known as EZH2 inhibitors, called GSK 126 and Tazemetostat, in pancreas samples donated from a child and an adult with type 1 diabetes. The drugs have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat other health conditions.  

They found that the drugs triggered cells found in the pancreas called ductal cells – which don’t normally produce insulin and aren’t victims of the type 1 diabetes immune attack – to behave like beta cells, and start producing insulin.

This process involves changing the ductal cell’s genetic ingredients, and a key player in this process is a protein called EZH2. The two drugs work by targeting this protein.  

Tests showed that newly transformed beta cells were able to release insulin in response to sugar, just like real beta cells would. Although more research is now needed, the findings suggest that insulin production could one day be restored in people with type 1 diabetes by helping the pancreas to generate new beta cells. 

What happens next? 

This research involved experiments with pancreas tissue in the lab, so the drugs are still a way off being ready to test in trials with people with type 1 diabetes. But these findings are a promising early step towards life-changing new beta cells treatments.  

The researchers are also hopeful that the findings could be used in the future to help people with type 2 diabetes.  

We’re investing millions into research to bring back beta cells through the Type 1 Diabetes Grand Challenge – a partnership between Diabetes UK, JDRF and the Steve Morgan Foundation. Our Grand Challenge researchers, like Dr James Cantley, are working hard to speed up progress in this area so we can reach new treatments sooner.  

The research project, funded by the charity JDRF, has been published this week in the Nature journal.  

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