Grompe lab discovery offers new clues to diabetes causes and treatment

Diabetes affects nearly 30 million people in the United States. The disease is caused by dysfunction or loss of insulin-producing beta cells that normalize blood sugar levels in the body. Until now, only one type of beta cell was known to exist. But OHSU researchers have developed a method allowing them to identify and isolate four separate subtypes that differ in their susceptibility to metabolic stress and their capacity to proliferate or change from one cell type to another. The results of their research, published July 11 in Nature Communications, may provide new and important avenues for research and treatment of diabetes.

“This study marks the first description of several different kinds of human insulin-producing beta cells,” said Markus Grompe, M.D., principal 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.”

The paper, “Human islets contain four distinct subtypes of cells,” was supported by the National Institutes of Health (Grant #s DK105831 and DK089569) and the Helmsley Trust. Craig Dorrell, Ph.D., and Grompe co-wrote the manuscript. Additional researchers from OHSU, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and the University of California, San Francisco contributed to this study.

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  1. You mention that metabolic stress may induce the cells to proliferate or change from one cell type to another. Do cells really change or is change manifested in resultant daughter cells? It seems that years ago I heard a speaker insist that cells do not actually change but rather daughter cells resulting from cell division can switch types relative to their parent cell.

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Julie Rogers is Research Development Associate in the Office of Research Funding & Development Services.

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