The liver is the only organ in the human body that regenerates, or to put it another way, repairs itself. Yes, in some way, our bodies are constantly regenerating. But tissues and organs other than the liver have a very limited capacity to regenerate. But recently, Australian researchers have uncovered the barrier to β-cell (beta cell) regeneration that could pave the way for improved treatments for diabetes and diseases that involve organ and tissue damage, says MedicalXpress.com.
Beta cells make the blood-glucose controlling hormone, insulin. Some people living with diabetes are insulin-dependent, meaning, their body does not produce insulin on its own, and therefore, need to take supplemental insulin (via injection).
Those with type 1 diabetes, which is an auto-immune condition, are insulin-dependent. People with advanced type 2 diabetes may also be insulin-dependent. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most prevalent of the two types. Approximately 90-95% of people diagnosed with diabetes have the type 2 variety.
The only way to repair insulin-producing beta cells is via a pancreatic transplant or the transplantation of new islets, which are where clusters of beta cells reside in the organ. These two therapies are not reliable options given the logistical challenges posed by a shortage of donated pancreases as well as autoimmune drug effects.
But the researchers from the city of Melbourne’s Monash University have figured out a way to essentially turn off, like a switch, a biological process called methylation.
Essentially, methylation silences the genes of certain cells. Methylation is the reason why beta cells can’t regenerate. But in figuring out how to demethylate two developmental genes in experimental mice, the researchers hope the finding will carry over into the restoration of human beta cell function.
The cells that are affected in the methylation process are the descendants of stem cells. Stem cells can generate into any specific organ cells, such as pancreas cells. So by turning off the methylation process, the researchers speculate that these stem-cell like cells will be able to repair dysfunctional beta cells, thereby stimulating the body’s insulin-secreting potential.
“The [researchers’] discovery that DNA methylation is a barrier to adult beta-cell regeneration will assist scientists to restore beta-cell function in the pancreas,” said Professor Sam El-Osta, lead researcher of the study, which was published in the open access journal, NPJ Regenerative Medicine.