“When you are diabetic, you have to check your blood sugar levels. The doctor tells you to do it four times a day. So you prick your finger. A tiny drop of blood appears. You put it on the tester and within five seconds you get the result,” says Timothée, who suffers from diabetes.
Normally, it’s the job of the pancreas to control the levels of sugar in the blood by producing a hormone called insulin. Insulin is normally secreted by the so-called beta cells, but in people with diabetes, these cells are either attacked and destroyed by the immune system or unable to produce sufficient amounts of insulin.
“Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease where the immune system attacks the beta cells. The cells die and the production of insulin stops altogether. In type 2 diabetes, the beta cells are present in the pancreas but they don’t function properly and no longer produce enough insulin,” says diabetologist Myriam Cnop from the Université libre de Bruxelles.
For the past thirty years, researchers around the world have been trying to reproduce these cells in laboratories in order to study and understand beta-cell dysfunction.
Today, a team led by Professor Raphaël Scharfmann at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) may have found the answer.
“We managed to obtain beta cells from a small piece of human fetal pancreas transplanted onto mice, but the quantities were too small,” he explains. “So we added an immortalising gene to the cells, which then grew inside the mouse. We were then able to remove them from the mouse and put them into a Petri dish. These cells will now be very useful both in order to understand how these beta cells are destroyed or become dysfunctional in some diabetic patients, and maybe one day to help develop new drugs for different types of diabetes.”
Most diabetics today suffer from type 2 diabetes – a disease linked to being overweight or obese, which has grown into a true epidemic and a national health problem in some developed countries.
But help could be at hand thanks to a bacteria called “Akkermansia muciniphila” according to Patrice Cani from the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium.
“We found this bacteria completely by chance,” he says. “There are some 100,000 billion bacteria inside the human intestine, and we’ve known for a long time that these bacteria help digest food, for instance. Here, in this precise case, we were able to show that the akkermansia was able to exchange with our human cells and alter the way our organism uses sugar, to help combat type 2 diabetes.
“So we are currently studying the possibility of giving this bacteria to patients suffering from obesity and type 2 diabetes. And we hope that in a few years’ time we will have the answer to the question: can we give this bacteria in addition to a treatment to combat type 2 diabetes?,” he hopes.