New treatment approach could stop diabetes

Zurich – Researchers at the University of Zurich have used the new imaging mass cytometry method to investigate the pancreas of organ donors. Together with colleagues from Geneva and the USA, they have been able to demonstrate that type 1 diabetes could still be stopped at an early stage.

Beta cells in what is known as the pancreatic islets of Langerhans play a key role in regulating how the body metabolizes sugar. In patients suffering from type 1 diabetes, these beta cells are attacked and destroyed by the body’s own white blood cells. However, as explained in a press release from the University of Zurich (UZH), researchers currently know little about what actually happens inside the pancreas of those living with type 1 diabetes.

Researchers are only really able to examine the inner workings of this organ when people donate their pancreas upon death, as biopsies or high-resolution imaging of the pancreas are not feasible while patients are still alive. With relatively few organ donors around, it is therefore important for researchers to gain as much information as possible from every single organ donated.

Together with colleagues in Geneva and the USA, researchers at UZH have now been able to use imaging mass cytometry to investigate donated pancreases for the first time. The UZH stated that it played a central role in the development of this method.

Bernd Bodenmiller from the Institute of Quantitative Biomedicine at UZH explained that the method allowed his team to “visualize beta cells, other types of cells in the Langerhans islets as well as invading immune cells at the same time.” This kind of profound analysis would never have been possible using conventional approaches.

The researchers also discovered that there was still a surprisingly high number of beta cells in the pancreatic islets of Langerhans during the disease’s early stages. While these cells might look different and produce less insulin than healthy cells, they could still potentially be saved from complete destruction. Nicolas Damond of the UZH commented: “If we succeed in stopping the autoimmune attack this early, the cells could maybe regain their function and help with regulating the blood sugar levels of patients.” In this context, the progression of the disease could be slowed or, perhaps, halted completely.

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