The ability to turn stem cells into pancreatic cells is essential for the development of stem cell-based therapy of diabetes.
Dr Christopher Wright and colleagues at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, tagged cells expressing a gene called Ptf1a in mice so they could find out what happens to them as the animal develops.
They found that the gene was expressed in the cells that make up the tiny buds that become the pancreas.
Then they mutated the gene in mice, and used a powerful method of tracking the fate of these cells during embryonic growth. From this, the team found that cells that previously made up the early pancreas buds were instead turned into fully functional small intestine cells.
| The gene, Ptf1a, is required for the transformation of a stem cell into a pancreatic cell.
| Nature Genetics |
This indicated that the gene codes for a protein that is a master regulator of pancreas formation.
Further studies confirmed that the section of DNA that regulates the expression of this gene is quite specific for the pancreas.
Researchers investigating pancreas formation will be able to utilize this regulatory section of DNA as a tool to further probe the formation of the pancreas.
Considerable effort is currently being invested by researchers to try to turn embryonic stem cells into specific pancreatic islet cells, which produce insulin.
The efforts to develop stem cell-based therapies for type 1 and type 2 diabetes require that researchers know what makes a cell turn into a pancreatic cell.
Commenting on the findings of their research, Dr Wright said, "We now know that expression of the Ptfa1 gene is one such requirement for this transformation."