Creative Minds: Potential Diabetes Lessons from Binge-Eating Snakes

Secor with a snake

Stephen Secor/Credit: Secor Lab

Many people would do just about anything to avoid an encounter with a snake. Not Stephen Secor. Growing up in central New York State, Secor was drawn to them. He’d spend hours frolicking through forest and field, flipping rocks and hoping to find one. His animal-loving mother encouraged him to keep looking, and she even let him keep a terrarium full of garter snakes in his bedroom. Their agreement: He must take good care of them—and please make sure they don’t get loose.

As a teen, Secor considered a career as a large-animal veterinarian. But a college zoology course led him right back to his fascination with snakes. Now a professor at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, he’s spent 25 years trying to understand how some snakes, such as the Burmese python shown above, can fast for weeks or even months, and then go on a sudden food binge. Secor’s interest in the feast-or-famine digestive abilities of these snakes has now taken an unexpected turn that he never saw coming: a potential treatment to help people with diabetes.

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Progress Toward Stem Cell Treatment for Diabetes

patient-derived pancreatic beta cells

Caption: Insulin-containing pancreatic beta cells (green) derived from human stem cells. The red cells are producing another metabolic hormone, glucagon, that regulates blood glucose levels. Blue indicates cell nuclei.
Credit: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA

In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system kills off insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas needed to control the amount of glucose in their bloodstream. As a result, they must monitor their blood glucose often and take replacement doses of insulin to keep it under control. Transplantation of donated pancreatic islets—tissue that contains beta cells—holds some promise as a therapy or even a cure for type 1 diabetes. However, such donor islets are in notoriously short supply [1]. Recent advances in stem cell research have raised hopes of one day generating an essentially unlimited supply of replacement beta cells perfectly matched to the patient to avoid transplant rejection.

A couple of years ago, researchers took a major step toward this goal by coaxing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from mature human cells, to differentiate into cells that closely resembled beta cells. But a few things were troublesome. The process was long and difficult, and the iPSC-derived cells were not quite as good at sensing glucose and secreting insulin as cells in a healthy person. They also looked and, in some ways, acted like beta cells, but were unable to mature fully in the lab. Now, an NIH-funded team has succeeded in finding an additional switch that enables iPSC-derived beta cells to mature and produce insulin in a dish—a significant step toward moving this work closer to the clinical applications that many diabetics have wanted.

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Blood Sugar Control for Diabetes: Asking the Heart Questions

Glucose testing

Credit: Thinkstock

When most people think about risk factors for cardiovascular disease, they likely think of blood pressure readings or cholesterol levels. But here’s something else that should be high on that list: diabetes. That’s because people with diabetes are roughly twice as likely to die of heart disease than other folks [1]. Yet the issue of how best to help such people lower their cardiovascular risks remains a matter of intense debate. Some studies have suggested that part of the answer may lie in tightly controlling blood sugar (glucose) levels with a strict regimen of medications and monitoring [2]. Other research has shown that the intense effort needed to keep blood glucose levels under tight control might not be worth it and may even make things worse for certain individuals [3].

Now, a follow up of a large, clinical trial involving nearly 1,800 U.S. military veterans with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of diabetes—provides further evidence that tight blood glucose control may indeed protect the cardiovascular system. Reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine [4], researchers found a significant reduction in a composite measure of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and circulation-related amputations among the vets who maintained tight glucose control for about five and a half years on average. What’s particularly encouraging is most of the cardiovascular-protective benefit appears to be achievable through relatively modest, rather than super strict, reductions in blood glucose levels.

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Stem Cell Science: Taking Aim at Type 1 Diabetes

human stem cell-derived beta cells

Caption: Insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells (green) derived from human embryonic stem cells that have formed islet-like clusters in a mouse. The red cells are producing another metabolic hormone, glucagon, that regulates blood glucose levels. Blue indicates cell nuclei.
Credit: Photo by B. D. Colen/Harvard Staff; Image courtesy of Doug Melton

For most of the estimated 1 to 3 million Americans living with type 1 diabetes, every day brings multiple fingerpricks to manage their blood glucose levels with replacement insulin [1,2]. The reason is that their own immune systems have somehow engaged in friendly fire on small, but vital, clusters of cells in the pancreas known as the islets—which harbor the so-called “beta cells” that make insulin. So, it’s no surprise that researchers seeking ways to help people with type 1 diabetes have spent decades trying a find a reliable way to replace these islets.

Islet replacement has proven to be an extremely difficult research challenge for a variety of reasons, but exciting opportunities are now on the horizon. Notably, a team of researchers, led by Douglas Melton of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and partially funded by NIH, reported groundbreaking success just last week in spurring a human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line and two human-induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell lines to differentiate into the crucial, insulin-producing beta cells. Not only did cells generated from all three of these lines look like human pancreatic beta cells, they functioned like bona fide, glucose-responsive beta cells in a mouse model of type 1 diabetes [3].

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Bionic Pancreas for Type 1 Diabetes

Ed Damiano and son David

Caption: Boston University researcher Ed Damiano with his son David, who has type 1 diabetes, in 2002.
Credit: Toby Milgrome

From taking selfies to playing Candy Crush, smart phones are being put to a lot of entertaining uses. But today I’d like to share an exciting new use of mobile health (mHealth) technology that may help to save lives and reduce disability among people with type 1 diabetes—an advance inspired by one researcher’s desire to help his son.

By teaming a smart phone with a continuous glucose monitor and two pumps designed to deliver precise doses of hormones, a team from Boston has created a bionic pancreas that appears to control blood glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes more effectively than current methods. That is a significant achievement because if blood glucose levels are either too high or too low, there can be serious health consequences.

In a healthy body, the pancreas masterfully regulates blood glucose levels by orchestrating the secretion of insulin and another hormone, called glucagon, which raises blood glucose. These hormones work together like an automatic thermostat, raising and lowering blood glucose when appropriate. However, in type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin, leading to increased levels of glucose that gradually damage blood vessels, kidneys, and nerves, raising the risk of blindness and amputations.

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