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Ottawa researchers find clue to reversing diabetes

April 20, 2005

By Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa researchers have discovered a tantalizing clue that the pancreas may some day repair itself in people with Type 1 diabetes, and even produce enough insulin to fight off the disease.

Laboratory rats that develop this form of diabetes -- the most severe form, once known as juvenile diabetes -- have shown they can produce a complex of tiny tubes that are an attempt by the pancreas to regenerate itself. In diabetes, the body's immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, killing most.

But, the rats in Fraser Scott's lab show signs of fighting back. They can't defeat the disease, but they do show how the pancreas is already trying to fix itself, opening a door to possible future treatment.

Building these little "tubular complexes" in the pancreas is a well-known method of regenerating cells after injury. But no one had recognized it before in these diabetes-prone animals.

Mr. Scott and colleague Gen-Sheng Wang, both senior researchers at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, are excited by the find. "The pancreas is trying to regenerate itself in response to the immune system attack," Mr. Scott said.

There are still a lot of unknowns; the team still can't say with authority what these groups of tiny tubes do. But they do know that in the area where they form, there's an unusually high rate of insulin production going on. For diabetics, that's a good sign.

The rats, however, still become diabetic. That may be because the repair mechanism itself comes under attack by the immune system, Mr. Scott says.

His job now is to see how these cells can "somehow be coerced" into creating enough insulin-producing cells. Luckily, that may be a little easier than it sounds. Scientists have suggested Type 1 diabetes begins when the immune system has killed 80 to 90 per cent of the insulin-making cells. If so, the body may only need to save some of those cells, perhaps not even half of them, to tilt the balance and break down sugar with its own insulin supply.

There's still a mystery in these odd little bunches of tubules, Mr. Scott says. "But that shouldn't take away from the good news. The finding in rats suggests the body has the capacity to repair itself."

The study is published in the May issue of Laboratory Investigation, a science journal.

Note: Reproduced with permission from the Ottawa Citizen.