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Stem cell research progress

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have discovered that a specific gene – Sox17 – plays an important role in directing cells to become part of the pancreas or part of the bile duct (used in the digestion of food).

Research in mouse embryos found that the Sox17 gene "acts like a toggle or binary switch that sets off a cascade of genetic events," said the study's senior investigator, James Wells.

Could prove important

"In normal embryonic development, when you have an undecided cell, if Sox17 goes one way, the cell becomes part of the biliary system [bile duct]," Wells explained.

"If it goes the other way, the cell becomes part of the pancreas.”

The researchers believe the discovery could one day prove important in directing embryonic stem cells to become pancreatic beta cells and potentially act as a cure or treatment for Type 1 diabetes.

"With this study showing that turning one gene on or off in a mouse embryo instructs a cell to become pancreatic or biliary, now we'll see if that same gene, Sox17, can be used to direct an embryonic stem cell to become a biliary cell instead of a pancreatic cell," said Wells.

Another step forward

Dr Victoria King, Research Manager at Diabetes UK, said: "Stem cell research is very much in its infancy but with more research it could one day offer a real possibility of leading to a cure for diabetes."

"This study looks at a step in making a pancreatic cell from stem cells, but not necessarily the needed insulin-producing pancreatic cells. Making those cells is a big challenge.

"Diabetes UK would not wish to raise people's expectations that this research is a massive leap in diabetes stem cell research, but it is interesting and does provide another step forward in our knowledge," said King.

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