The research group of Diabetes Center Director Matthias Hebrok, PhD, and collaborators at Texas A&M University, discovered that mesenchymal fetal tissue plays a fundamental role in the formation of insulin-producing beta cells. In lab animals, they found that the mesenchyme secretes chemicals that multiply and expand cells that are slated to become both hormone producing cells and beta cells. When this tissue is removed, even late in development, these embryos do not grow their full complement of beta cells.
For a number of years, Dr. Hebrok and his colleagues have been studying the mesenchyme, a loose collection of cells in the embryo that surrounds the developing pancreas and eventually forms much of the body’s connective tissue. To understand the role that the mesenchyme plays in pancreas development, they learned how to manipulate this tissue and make it disappear at various stages. This allowed the team to take snapshots of the mesenchyme’s role in development.
Recently published in the journal PLoS Biology, this important discovery suggests that by identifying these mesenchymal signals, novel approaches may be created to help generate new, functional beta cells for replacement in the body. It may also lead to new ways to keep mature cells alive in adults.