Pancreatic Pathway a Newly Discovered Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

Originally Written: February 2009
Updated: Aprli 2018

Stem cell research at the University of California, San Diego in 2009 uncovered a signaling pathway associated with the development of the pancreas, which has close ties to the onset of type 2 diabetes. The hope is that this research will lead to the ability to target the specific pathway to treat or prevent type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes results most generally from decreased insulin sensitivity to the insulin produced in pancreatic beta cells. This leads to a diminished ability to regulate blood glucose levels, and can be extremely dangerous and potentially fatal if not monitored and treated properly. For this reason, the pancreas is of significant importance in diabetes research. In this particular research, however, the discovery of what is being referred to as the Wnt pathway, was a byproduct of recent pancreatic stem-cell research, and was not initially intended to have direct consequences on future diabetic treatments.

According to the researchers, the Wnt signaling pathway is directly connected to the natural development of the pancreas. It was found that certain “protein interactions” in the pathway behave differently in type 2 diabetics than in non-diabetic individuals. Specifically, type 2 diabetics had higher levels of the protein beta-catenin, which acts to “activate certain genes,” and resides in insulin producing beta-cells. It was found that when activated, the Wnt pathways leads to the destruction of these insulin producing beta-cells, making it a potential risk-factor for type 2 diabetes.

Lead researcher, Dr. Pamela Itkin-Ansari describes the significance of discovering the new signaling pathway; “It is now clear that progenitor cells, with the capacity to become insulin producing cells, reside in the adult pancreas. The key to harnessing those cells to treat diabetes is to understand the signaling pathways that are active in the pancreas under both normal and disease conditions. In the course of that research we found that Wnt signaling activity, which plays a critical role in the development of the pancreas, re-emerges in type 2 diabetes.”

Original Source: Itkin-Ansari, Pamela. Baxt, Josh. Experimental Diabetes Research news release. February 2009.

Update: Many advances in the understanding of the Wnt pathway and its role in glucose homeostasis and other metabolic functions has occured over the past several years. For a good overview of recent research, see a 2016 article published in “Endocrine Reviews.”


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