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It's called Pax4, and European and U.S. researchers say that when it is forced on the alpha cells of diabetic mice, the cells change their identity and become functioning beta cells-the producers of insulin.
(Alpha cells produce glucagon, a hormone that makes the liver release glucose. In people with type 1 diabetes, whose beta cells have been destroyed or almost completely impaired, there is no insulin to counter the effects of uncontrolled glucagon.)
The researchers, drawn from institutes in France, Denmark, Germany and Belgium, as well as U.S. research centers in Tennessee, knew that Pax4 was a significant factor in insulin production. Previous studies had shown that mice born without the gene died at birth.
By "switching on" Pax4 in mice that had type 1 diabetes, scientists noted an eight-fold increase in their beta cells. As Pax4 converts alpha cells into beta cells, the body senses the loss of alphas and makes replacements. The alphas in turn convert into betas.
Although it's a long road from experiments on lab mice to trials on humans, researchers believe that Pax4's effects make it potentially one of the most effective approaches yet to a virtual cure for type 1.
One question they will have to answer is whether the gene might induce an overproduction of beta cells. Too many beta cells are like too much of anything, not good. An overproduction of insulin could cause hypoglycemic episodes, as well as other complications.
The findings have been published in the August 7 issue of Cell.
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