Can Science Reprogram Your Pancreas: Your pancreas is a very versatile organ. It provides both endocrine and exocrine function.
The endocrine function of the body allows hormones to be released to all other areas of the body. For instance your thyroid is part of the endocrine system and regulates the rate at which your body will burn energy.
The pancreas secretes hormones such as glucagon, which is used to regulate how fast your body burns carbohydrates. Glucagons essentially instruct your liver to convert glycogen into blood sugars that your body can use as fuel.
The pancreas can also send out instructions via the hormone known as insulin. This function is the opposite of glucagons. In essence insulin tells the cells in your body to take glycogen into their membranes for storage effectively removing excess blood sugar (glucose) from the blood stream.
Glucagons and insulin have to work together to correctly adapt the blood stream to the metabolic needs it may face at any given moment.
The pancreas also secretes somatostatin, which is used by the body to regulate hormone-induced growth. And finally pancreatic polypeptide is released to regulate all functions of the pancrease.
Pancreatic activity also comes in the form of exocrine functions. That simply means that apart from hormonal duties the pancreas is called upon to release enzymes that are efficiently used to aid in proper digestion.
For the diabetic the pancreas is an essential part of the body’s natural defense against this disease. It appears the glucagons are readily able to signal the release of blood sugar, but the body becomes resistant to the signal of insulin to do its job effectively.
Many times the release of insulin is impaired, especially in Type 1 diabetics making insulin injections or pumps a regular part of the diabetic’s life.
Research in 2008 by Harvard University suggests that it may be possible to turn on dormant pancreatic cells to take on the function of insulin production.
Most cell-based research in recent years has focused on stem cells, but the study headed by Doug Melton bypasses some of the controversy surrounding stem cell research by simply finding ways to enlist existing, but dormant cells into service.
Researchers are calling the process “direct reporgramming”. The premise behind the study is that every cell has the body’s DNA. If it could be reprogrammed to act as a cell designed for insulin production this could eleviate much of the problems associated with diabetes. The study has proven effective in mice who suffer with Type 1 diabetes.
In Type 1 diabetes the body attacks the beta cells that manufactire insulin. This process could reprogram new cells to take over the role of insulin production.
In their study, Harvard researchers saw beta cells transform and begin take on the role of insulin producers within ten days of reprogramming.
The potential of this finding provides hope for patients with diabetes, but it also has strong applications for use in treating other diseases. While studies on stem cells will likely continue, this new approach seems to suggest damaged cells in almost any situation could be replaced by cells that have been reprogrammed for new use.
It may still be a few years before this process is available to the public, but the preliminary findings provide encouragement that may likely expand beyond diabetic research.