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Just three days later, new insulin-secreting cells started to show up. By a week after that, more than a fifth of the virally infected cells started making insulin. That shows "an amazingly efficient effect," commented Richard Insel, executive vice president of research at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
Scientists found evidence that the newcomers were converts from mature enzyme-making cells. They identified the new cells as beta cells by their detailed appearance and behavior, and Melton said they've continued functioning for months.
The new cells didn't fully replenish the insulin supply, but maybe there were too few of them, or they were hampered by not forming clusters like ordinary beta cells do, researchers said.
The work brings "more excitement to the idea of using reprogramming as a way to treat diabetes," said researcher Mark Kay of Stanford University, who is studying the approach with liver cells.
Christopher Newgard, who studies beta cells at Duke University Medical Center, called the work convincing but cautioned that significant scientific questions remained about using the approach in treating disease.
Melton, who began his diabetes research in 1993 when his infant son was diagnosed with the illness, said he's obsessed with trying to find a new treatment or cure for Type 1 diabetes, in which beta cells are destroyed.
"I wake up every day thinking about how to make beta cells," he said.
Melton said he hopes drugs can replace the virus approach because of concern about injecting viruses into people.
As for converting other kinds of cells, scientists noted that the two cell types in the mouse experiment are closely related, and it remains to be shown whether the trick can be achieved with more distant combinations. In any case, scientists would have to deliver different reprogramming signals to other kinds of cells, Melton said.
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