Early Life Planning and the Onset of Diabetes

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Diabetes happens when the body, for whatever reason, is unable to produce enough insulin to properly regulate blood sugar levels. Insulin is produced in the pancreas through beta cells, which are located within islet cells. Dr. David Hill, Scientific Director & Scientist at the Lawson Health Research Institute (LHRI), and his team have found that the pancreas also contains stem cells or master cells that may have the ability to turn into replacement islet cells when there is a deficiency of insulin producing cells.

For the past year, scientists at the LHRI have been investigating the effects of dietary manipulations such as a low-protein diet in pregnant rats and its effects on the development of the pancreas. The addition of an amino acid called taurine in these rats resulted in reversing the alterations in beta cells observed with the low-protein diet. They were also interested in what stage of the development process is mostly affected by protein deficiency and if this can be recovered by taurine. Preliminary data suggests that the most dramatic changes in the development of endocrine pancreas, occur during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of fetal life. The addition of taurine resulted in the restoration of beta cells.

Also, results have clearly shown that taurine supplementation in early life substantially delays the onset of diabetes in non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice. These mice mimic Type I diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes in humans. Researchers are working now to determine which mechanisms are involved in this process.

The team at the LHRI believes that nutrition during pregnancy could be the main factor of many more conditions which develop throughout life such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type II diabetes. Researchers believe that nutrition alters fetal development and is instrumental in programming health outcomes in adulthood.The results obtained, may lead researchers to understand more clearly what happens to the human fetus when it has an unbalanced diet and is deprived of basic nutrients such as proteins. These will open a variety of options for interventions that can be administered to those mothers at risk of having a low birth weight baby, in order to prevent diabetes later in life.

In addition, the team from the LHRI is investigating ways to improve transplantation of insulin-producing cells. Researchers have found a way to isolate possible stem cells within the pancreatic tissue, and believe it will not be long before they can develop and grow enough cells that may be sufficient to be used in transplants in diabetic recipients. These experiments are still in an early stage and are performed in animals. Dr. Hill states, “The research demonstrates the potential of harvesting stem cells from donor tissues, rather than from the early embryo with its associated ethical dilemmas. Understanding how to isolate stem cells and induce their differentiation into insulin producing islets, will be the fast-track to making islet transplantation widely available to diabetics.”