There are four main cell types in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas; α-cells which secrete glucagon, β-cells which secrete insulin, δ-cells which secrete somatostatin, and PP cells which secrete pancreatic polypeptide. Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the insulin-producing β-cells are destroyed and could potentially be treated by the creation of new β-cells, either from stem or stem-like cells or by conversion of another mature cell type. It has recently been shown that the transcription factor, Pax4, induces transdifferentiation of pancreatic α-cells into β-cells in adult mice and a team led by researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT has now shown that a similar effect can be achieved with a small molecule.
Using a mouse α-cell line, the team screened over 30,000 compounds and found that one of them, BRD7389, induced insulin expression after 3 days treatment. Induction of insulin gene expression in α-cells peaked at 5 days (ca 50-fold at a BRD7389 concentration of 0.85µM) and the cells adopted a β-cell-like morphology. Insulin protein levels were also increased from a basal α-cell state, although were much lower than the levels produced by mature β-cells. BRD7389 also increased insulin secretion in primary human islet cells although since there are many different cells types in the human tissue samples, it is also not possible to attribute the increase in insulin levels exclusively to conversion of α-cells to β-like-cells.
Follow-up studies suggested that upregulation of insulin expression potentially involved inhibition of multiple members of the RSK family of protein kinases, but more experiments are needed to fully elucidate the mechanism of action of BRD7389. The study demonstrates, however, that a small molecule can induce insulin expression in α-cells and suggests that such a strategy could be used to increase β-cell mass by transdifferentiation in vivo. The team now want to identify other small molecules that could be used to enhance the effects of BRD7389, and boost insulin production in people with type I diabetes.
The study is published in PNAS.