Israeli scientists say humans may have ‘backup’ insulin system diabetics could use

Researchers identify insulin-producing apparatus in fetuses that they believe lies ‘dormant’ after birth but may one day be reactivated to address problems

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A diabetic woman injects herself with insulin (dzika_mrowka via iStock by Getty Images)
A diabetic woman injects herself with insulin (dzika_mrowka via iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli scientists have discovered that babies make insulin in their intestines before birth, and say this means that adults may have a “backup” system that could be reactivated to treat diabetes.

The revelation was made in peer-reviewed research published on Thursday in the journal Nature Medicine.

A team led by Prof. Shalev Itzkovitz of the Weizmann Institute of Science analyzed tissue from fetuses and newborn babies whose parents had given permission.

“To our surprise we found that newborn babies have a population of cells that unexpectedly express insulin, and these cells are no longer active in producing insulin after birth,” Itzkovitz told The Times of Israel.

“The cells in question continue to exist after birth, secreting other hormones, but they shut down the insulin-making process.”

The cells were of the type known as K/L and located in the small intestine, where most of the absorption of nutrients from food takes place

Throughout life insulin is created in the pancreas. Diabetes, a disorder that affects almost 500 million people worldwide, often occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin. Itzkovitz said that identifying a parallel insulin-production system, even if it becomes inactive after birth, offers hope.

“This indicates that humans may have a dormant insulin-making apparatus from before birth, and that it could potentially be reactivated as needed one day,” said Itzkovitz.

Imaging from the intestine of a foetus, with insulin-producing cells marked in purple and green, and in picture on right, magnified and marked with arrows (courtesy of the Weizmann Institute of Science)

In the study, Itzkovitz’s PhD student Adi Egozi and the Weizmann and Yale teams created an “atlas” of fetal intestinal cells. They did so using advanced technology called single-cell RNA sequencing, which creates profiles of the entire gene expression in thousands of individual cells simultaneously. The researchers then compared these profiles with those of cells in the intestines of newborns.

A fetus inside the womb (iStock via Getty Images)

Itzkovitz said that the existence of the insulin-making apparatus before birth is something of a mystery, as the mother normally nourishes the fetus and balances its insulin. “We don’t know why the cells are there, but hypothesize it may be there in case the mother has gestational diabetes and isn’t balancing the fetuses’s glucose levels,” he said.

“The hope now is that some kind of drugs may be used to reactivate these cells in adults. Because if diabetic people had cells in their body that could both sense glucose levels and secrete insulin according to glucose levels, this would actually cure their diabetes.

“It’s very far away, but we are revealing that in a different tissue, there’s a hidden molecular program that may have the ability to produce insulin.”

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