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The possible discovery of adult stem cells in the pancreas could offer hope for diabetics who take insulin shots to make up for defective cells.
Scientists from the University of Toronto believe they have found adult stem cells in the pancreas of mice that are capable of creating insulin-producing beta cells. Those cells can compensate for defective pancreatic islets, which are comprised mostly of beta cells.
The islets produce insulin that regulates a person's blood sugar level.
"People have been intensely searching for pancreatic stem cells for a while now, and so our discovery of precursor cells within the adult pancreas that are capable of making new pancreatic cells is very exciting," UT researcher Simon Smukler said.
According to the study, published in the August 22 edition of the medical journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers are now conducting further reviews to ensure that the cells they found are adult stem cells and not just precursor cells that simply give rise to the development of the pancreas.
Stem cells can renew themselves over the entire life of the person or animal and can produce varied cell types, such as the islet cells diabetes patients need.
"Pancreatic stem cells could provide a plentiful supply of beta cells for transplant treatments," the researchers said in a statement.
Researchers at the University of Alberta have been transplanting the insulin-making islet cells into patients and helping them shed their dependence on the insulin shots. However, the research relies on harvesting the islet cells from human cadavers and the supply of the cells fluctuates significantly.
The discovery of adult stem cells that can create a limitless supply of islets could prove revolutionary.
Ronald Worton, head of Canada's Stem Cell Network, said he thinks his country's stem cell research efforts will finally produce the help diabetes patients needs.
"I think it's true that diabetes is going to turn out to be a main focus of Canada's stem-cell efforts," he told the Toronto Globe newspaper.
The Toronto researchers have also grown nerve cells, including neurons, from their single mouse cell.
The University of Toronto has long been involved in diabetes and stem cell research. Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin there in the 1920s, while years later, Drs. Ernest McCulloch and James Till first described the stem-cell concept.
This study was supported by the Stem Cell Network and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.
Related: UT Study –