Scientists Identify Chemical That Helps Insulin-Producing Cells Survive

Beta cell dysfunction due to increased ER stress in a stem cell model of Wolfram syndrome, Diabetes, published online Nov. 13 2013

What is the problem and what is known about it so far?

All types of diabetes are, in one way or another, caused by an inability of the beta cells in the pancreas to produce enough insulin to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. No one yet understands exactly why beta cells fail. One rare type of diabetes is associated with a genetic disorder called Wolfram Syndrome, which causes beta cell failure. Scientists have identified the genetic defect that causes Wolfram Syndrome.

Why did the researchers do this particular study?

It may be possible to study why beta cells fail in all types of diabetes by studying beta cell failure in Wolfram Syndrome, since that disease’s genetic basis is well understood.

Who was studied?

The researchers studied cells from people with Wolfram syndrome.

How was the study done?

The researchers removed skin cells from people with Wolfram syndrome and mixed them with a variety of chemicals to convert the skin cells into stem cells, which can be coaxed into becoming any type of cell in the body. The researchers used another series of chemicals to convert the stem cells into cells that resembled insulin-producing beta cells. The researchers then studied the properties of these cells to figure out what defects lead to beta cell failure.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that the stress on a particular part of the cells, called the endoplasmic reticulum, appeared to be related to the loss of insulin production by the cells. Adding in a chemical—called a chaperone—that helps keep the proteins in a cell functional restored insulin production by the cells. 

What were the limitations of the study?

This study was performed on cells in the laboratory, so it's difficult to know whether the results would be the same in the context of the human body.

What are the implications of the study?

This model system for beta cell failure may help scientists better understand the progression of diabetes. The study also suggests that chemical chaperones may provide a new strategy for the treatment of diabetes. 

  • Last Reviewed: February 13, 2014
  • Last Edited: March 31, 2014

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