Close to 50% of people who suffer from chronic pancreatitis will develop diabetes. That is because the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas do not regenerate, and the progressive destruction of the organ eventually impairs its ability to supply the body with the insulin it needs.
Now scientists at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco have developed a way to grow pancreas cells from skin cells in mice. The technique involves essentially reprogramming early skin cells using a cocktail of chemicals so that they transformed into cells that eventually grow organs like the pancreas. The cells were then tranplanted into mice that had been manipulated to have hyperglycemia. A week after the transplant, the mice’s blood glucose levels started to stabilize, and after eight weeks they showed a growing number of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.
In addition to the potential for treating diabetes, the promise for use with other aspects of pancreatitis is encouraging. Not only could it be possible to delay or avoid the onset of diabetes by repairing the endocrine cells in the pancreas, but someday doctors may also be able to repair the exocrine function — the majority of pancreas cells that produce digestive enzymes. This means that it may be possible to cure pancreatitis…a dream for those suffering for years or decades with the disease. Regenerative medicine holds immense promise; we should encourage its use to address the intractable problem of chronic pancreatitis.