Rethinking Healthcare

Gut cells can produce insulin

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Columbia University researchers have found a possible new source of insulin for people with Type 1 diabetes: gastrointestinal cells.

A possible new insulin source exists for people with Type 1 diabetes: their own gut cellsA study  from Columbia University published in Nature Genetics shows that cells in the intestine can be prompted to secrete insulin.

People with Type 1 diabetes don't have enough insulin in their bloodstream. Something in their body mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells in their pancreas.

SmartPlanet got a further explanation from Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi of Columbia University Medical Center. She works with diabetes patients but was not involved in the Nature Genetics study.

"Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas," explained Gyamfi. "Just about every food has some element of glucose or is broken down into glucose. You eat something, and then the insulin comes and counters the glucose, so there's almost this balance -- the glucose goes up, the insulin goes up to counter it, and it metabolizes it so that your body can use it." Without the insulin necessary to counter glucose, people with Type 1 diabetes get too much glucose in their bloodstream, which can lead to problems with their heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves, and gums and teeth.

The Columbia University research team found that when they turned off a certain gene, Foxo1, progenitor cells in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of mice produce insulin-producing cells.

The team is optimistic that these insulin-producing cells could be grown in the GI tract of human patients. They've been pleased to find that the cells have glucose-sensing receptors, so they produce insulin in response to heightened blood glucose levels.

The success of the prospective treatment rests on the researchers' ability to find a drug that has the same insulin-promoting effect on human GI progenitor cells as knocking out Foxo1 in mice.

[Nature Genetics]

Photo: Spec-ta-cles/Flickr

Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure