Whittier Institute Researchers Discover Genetic Clues to Aid in the Prevention of Diabetes

A new study by researchers at The Whittier Institute for Diabetes pinpoints key mechanisms that lead to the formation of pancreatic beta cells in response to insulin resistance. The findings may some day help researchers stimulate cell growth and prevent diabetes.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body needs increasing amounts of insulin to convert sugars, starches and other food into energy, and keep blood glucose levels in the normal range. It is a major contributor to type 2 diabetes, obesity and other metabolic syndromes.

“The study is significant because it is the first time that scientists have been able to discover an actual mechanism by which beta cells replicate,” said lead co-author Ulupi Jhala, Ph.D., researcher at The Whittier Institute for Diabetes and faculty member at the University of California, San Diego. “Knowing what enables existing beta cells to expand could then be used to boost the body’s ability to grow more cells and prevent the onset of diabetes.”

Today, diabetes affects 18 million people in the United States and an estimated 200 million people worldwide. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that obesity has led to a tripling of people with type 2 diabetes in the last 30 years.

According to the study, the rapid growth of insulin-secreting beta cells occurs from existing cells, not from new cells as was once believed. The highly regulated and
reversible, systematic manner of cell growth is called “Epithelial-to-Mesenchymal Transition” or EMT. Scientists determined that even mild genetic defects in the machinery that participates in such growth can result in failure of the body to respond – which can lead to diabetes.

“What we’ve learned may allow us to both prevent and treat type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” added Dr. Jhala.

Dr. Jhala collaborated in the study with researchers from the Harvard Medical School in Boston and several other local institutions. The results were published in the September 2004 issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Center for Islet Transplantation at Harvard Medical School, the Beta Cell Biology Consortium and the Larry Hillblom Foundation.

The Whittier Institute for Diabetes, a subsidiary of Scripps Health, is one of the nation’s leading diabetes research, patient care and education organizations. A not-for-profit institute, The Whittier operates a collaborative research program with the University of California, San Diego; treats and educates people with diabetes at Scripps hospitals and physicians’ offices throughout the county and at Children’s Hospital; and manages Project Dulce, the community diabetes care program, which treats and educates underserved populations.

More information can be found at www.whittier.org.

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Lisa Ohmstede

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