Type 1 diabetes: researchers pinpoint molecule to regenerate insulin-producing cells

A neurotransmitter by the name of GABA, known to reduce brain activity, could induce the regeneration of insulin-producing cells, researchers in France have found. The breakthrough, confirmed in mice and partially validated in humans, brings new hope to patients suffering from type 1 diabetes, explains the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherce médicale).

This latest research, published in the journal Cell, could hold particular significance for patients suffering from type 1 diabetes.

This form of the disease accounts for 5% to 10% of all diabetes cases. Although with no symptoms for a relatively long time, the disease often manifests during childhood or adolescence, when 80% to 90% of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (beta cells) have already been destroyed due to an autoimmune reaction.

The main aim of the research was to regenerate these cells, “as current treatments are not always sufficient in preventing (serious) complications,” explains INSERM.

The team of researchers discovered that this effect could be induced “with no genetic modification, using GABA, a neurotransmitter that is naturally present in the body and also available as a dietary supplement.”

Previously, only a genetic modification of cells that resemble the beta cells, called glucagon-secreting alpha cells, was able to increase the number of insulin-producing cells. 

GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system. Unlike dopamine or adrenaline, it doesn’t have a stimulating effect. In the body, GABA is synthesized from an amino acid called glutamic acid. Dietary sources of glutamic acid include cod, soybeans, almonds, cheese (Parmesan, Gouda, Edam, Gruyère) and veal.

The role of GABA was first observed in mice.

“In mice, GABA induces the continuous, yet controlled, regeneration of pancreatic alpha cells and their transformation into insulin-producing beta cells. The regenerated cells are functional and can cure chemically-induced diabetes multiple times,” said the researchers.

In humans, the scientists found that the number of glucagon-producing alpha cells was reduced by 37% and the number of insulin-producing cells increased by 24% in pancreatic islets treated with GABA.

“These results are truly encouraging for a putative application in humans. Accordingly, a pilot clinical trial will soon be initiated to determine whether GABA may effectively help patients with type 1 diabetes,” the researchers conclude.