The pancreas is an extremely vital organ with multiple important functions including but not limited to its more widely known function of secreting insulin, whose deficiency can result in Diabetes. Diabetes can be either Type 1, which is a result of absolute insulin deficiency due to the autoimmune destruction of the pancreatic beta cells, cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, etc or it can be the more prevalent Type 2, which is a consequence of long-standing obesity, genetic predisposition, unhealthy lifestyle leading to insulin resistance. Currently, the mainstay of therapy for Diabetes is targeted at a lifelong exogenous supply of Insulin and other oral hypoglycemic agents. However, these treatments can have serious side effects such as life-threatening hypoglycemia, chronic renal disease, lactic acidosis, and so on.
Apart from its endocrine function, the pancreas also has exocrine secretory functions of producing digestive enzymes whose deficiency can result in malabsorption, malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, and weight loss.
A breakthrough by Scientists from the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine could soon resolve the need for lifelong management of pancreatic insufficiency. They have come up with a way that enables laboratory growth and culture of human pancreases by regenerating them in real-time from pancreatic slices. According to the report of their research which was published this week in the journal of Nature Communications, they have successfully presented that cultured and regenerated human pancreatic tissue containing beta cells may possess similar potency as a live human pancreas in secreting insulin implicating a game-changing approach to Diabetes management.
The DRI obtained slices of pancreatic tissue with intact pancreatic morphological structures of the organ from live human donors. Initially, they encountered difficulties in maintaining the tissue’s viability as pancreatic tissue undergoes auto-digestion when damaged due to the release of its digestive enzymes, and this process was further accelerated by poor oxygenation. By placing the slices in a culture device that provided the tissues with adequate oxygen, the researchers were able to ensure the tissue maintained its native structure. This technique allowed the tissue to remain functional for a period of days sufficient to regenerate pancreatic Beta cells. Before the advent of this technique of maintaining pancreatic tissue viability outside of the human body, any attempts at regeneration were largely unsuccessful.
“The ability to keep human pancreatic slices alive for nearly two weeks is a technical breakthrough that allows us to witness the regeneration of beta cells in a human model that strongly resembles the real pancreas,” said Dr. Juan Domínguez-Bendala, Director of Stem Cell Development for Translational Research and Research Associate Professor of Surgery at the Diabetes Research Institute, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and principal investigator of this work.
After ensuring tissue viability outside the human body, the researchers exposed the pancreatic slices to a growth factor known as BMP-7 which enabled tissue proliferation and growth of functional beta cells.
“Extending the life of these slices in culture was key to observe beta cell regeneration in real-time following the addition of BMP-7, even in slices obtained from diabetic donors. This gives us hope that we may be able to apply this approach to living patients one day,” said Ricardo Pastori, Ph.D., Research Professor of Medicine, Immunology, and Microbiology and the Director of the Molecular Biology Laboratory at the Diabetes Research Institute, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and co-principal investigator of this study.
If these results were to be replicated on a larger scale with insulin-deficient diabetic patients receiving regenerated pancreatic beta cells, the current modality of Diabetes management could become redundant in the near future.