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Discovery of insulin-producing beta cell subtypes may impact diabetes treatment

A new study led by nationally prominent stem cell scientist Markus Grompe, M.D., has determined the existence of at least four separate subtypes of human insulin producing beta cells that may be important in the understanding and treatment of diabetes. The findings were published online today in the journal Nature Communications.

“This study marks the first description of several different kinds of human insulin producing beta cells,” said Grompe, primary investigator, director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center at OHSU and the Papé Family Pediatric Research Institute at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “Some of the cells are better at releasing insulin than others, whereas others may regenerate quicker. Therefore, it is possible that people with different percentages of the subtypes are more prone to diabetes. Further understanding of cell characteristics could be the key to uncovering new treatment options, as well as the reason why some people are diabetic and others are not.”

Diabetes affects more than 29 million people in the United States. It is caused by the dysfunction or loss of insulin producing beta cells, which help the body to achieve normal blood sugar levels. Previously, only a single variety of beta cell was known to exist. However, using human pancreatic islets, or clusters of up to 4,000 cells, Grompe and colleagues discovered a method to identify and isolate four distinct types of beta cells. They also found that hundreds of genes were differently expressed between cell subtypes and that they produced different amounts of insulin. All type 2 diabetics had abnormal percentages of the subtypes, suggesting a possible role in the disease process.

Additional research is needed to determine how different forms of diabetes – and other diseases – affect the new cell subtypes, as well as how researchers may take advantage of these differences for medical treatment.

The paper “Human islets contain four distinct subtypes of b cells” was supported by the National Institutes of Health (Grant #s DK105831 and DK089569) and the Helmsley Trust. Researchers from OHSU, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and the University of California, San Francisco contributed to this study.

OHSU actively regulates, tracks and manages relationships and financial interests that our researchers may hold with entities outside of OHSU. In regards to this research project, OHSU has commercially licensed technology of which Grompe is an inventor. 

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is a nationally prominent research university and Oregon’s only public academic health center. It serves patients throughout the region with a Level 1 trauma center and nationally recognized Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. OHSU operates dental, medical, nursing and pharmacy schools that rank high both in research funding and in meeting the university’s social mission. OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute helped pioneer personalized medicine through a discovery that identified how to shut down cells that enable cancer to grow without harming healthy ones. OHSU Brain Institute scientists are nationally recognized for discoveries that have led to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and stroke. OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute is a global leader in ophthalmic imaging, and in clinical trials related to eye disease.


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