Diabetes research: are pancreatic beta cells responsible for insulin resistance?

Diabetes research: are pancreatic beta cells responsible for insulin resistance?

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Latest findings from diabetes research

Although diabetes is one of the most common diseases worldwide, the exact causes are still unclear. An international research team has now taken a huge step closer to solving the riddle. Apparently the pancreatic beta cells that are responsible for insulin production work together in organized groups that are led by a kind of boss cell. Without their "supervisor", the cell groups react uncoordinated and sugar processing is massively disrupted.

Pancreatic beta cells work together in strictly hierarchical groups, all of which are networked and coordinated by so-called leader cells. If these leader cells are overridden, sugar can no longer be processed properly in the body. International researchers found this out with the participation of the Technical University of Dresden. The study results were presented in the renowned journal “Nature Metabolism”.

Diabetes: a common disease with unclear causes

Around every eleventh adult in the world now suffers from diabetes, mostly Type 2. The body's cells are becoming increasingly insensitive to the hormone insulin, which promotes the absorption of sugar from the blood in the cells. As a result of the increasing insulin resistance of the cells, sufferers suffer from an increased blood sugar level with far-reaching consequences for health. However, how this disturbance in sugar metabolism occurs is still unclear in detail. The research team at TU Dresden has now shown why beta cells in the pancreas may refuse to release insulin. This also creates a new treatment approach for diabetes.

Cells also have bosses

Researchers from Great Britain, Canada, Italy and Germany discovered a previously unknown hierarchical structure in cells of the pancreas. The insulin-producing beta cells come together in associations, so-called islet cells. These islands form an effective unit for sugar processing. The island associations are coordinated and managed by special chief cells, the so-called leader cells. In this way, a healthy body creates an effective system for guiding the sugar from the blood into the cells.

No job without a boss

Professor Guy Rutter from Imperial College London and Professor David Hodson from Birmingham University first discovered this network of cells in the laboratory. "In the model organisms, we saw that when the blood sugar level rose, the response of the beta cells was controlled by leader cells that exist for a limited time," reports Luis Delgadillo Silva, one of the main authors of the study. Using innovative imaging technology, the researchers have now been able to demonstrate the system in living animals such as zebrafish and mice. In various tests, the team showed what happens when the newly discovered leader cells refuse to serve. “When we specifically deactivated the leader cells, the reactions to sugar were suddenly disrupted,” says Silva.

Skilled workers among the beta cells

The team also discovered that not all cells in the island cluster have the same function. The researchers' analyzes show that some beta cells have a unique molecular signature, which apparently allows them to take an active role in metabolism. At the same time, according to the study, such cells are also endowed with a higher sensitivity to sugar.

Are the leader cells the key to fighting diabetes?

"It is important for us to understand whether leader cells are more susceptible to damage when diabetes develops and, above all, whether they can be used specifically to maintain strong and healthy insulin responses to cure the disease," sums up Dr . Victoria Salem from Imperial College London. In upcoming series of experiments on zebrafish, the research team would now like to investigate the role of leader cells more closely. "We want to activate or silence beta cells," adds Silva. This is to be monitored with a specially developed tool that can be used to determine how many cells are controlled by a leader cell and which genes determine the identity of a leader cell. The research group hopes to decipher the exact causes of diabetes and perhaps also to find a method of healing.

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Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Salem, Victoria / Silva, Luis Delgadillo / Suba, Kinga / Georgiadou, Eleni / u.a .: Leader β-cells coordinate Ca2 + dynamics across pancreatic islets in vivo, Nature Metabolism, 2019,
  • Technische Universität Dresden: Focus on common diabetes: Why do beta cells refuse to release insulin? (Retrieved: June 27, 2019),

Video: Dr. Mariela Glandt - Reawakening the pancreas in Type 2 Diabetes (May 2022).