How Far Should We Play God With The Pancreas?

| March 24, 2017

Type 1 diabetes is a serious condition that develops when the immune system attacks beta cells in the pancreas, which normally produce insulin. Although some people with type 1 diabetes may still be able to make a bit of insulin, it is insufficient to control blood sugar levels, so daily insulin injections are a lifelong burden for sufferers. In recent years, though, scientists have discovered that it may be possible to stimulate beta cells to regenerate and produce insulin again.

Several herbs and natural nutrients have been found to encourage the regeneration of beta cells in animal studies, as I mention here. And the immune system could also be ‘re-trained’ to stop it attacking the beta cells, as I describe here. Researchers have recently shown it is possible to prevent immune system damage to the pancreas, using red blood cells tagged with a beta cell antigen. When such red blood cells were injected into mice specially bred to develop type 1 diabetes, blood sugar levels in the treated mice remained normal.1

Another line of research involves getting other kinds of cells in the pancreas, called alpha cells and delta cells, to take over the insulin-producing function of the beta cells. A recent study at Stanford University School of Medicine has shown that alpha cells in mice can be made to ‘flip their fate’ and become beta cells instead, when the expression of just two genes is blocked.2

Taking genetic manipulation a step further, scientists have also been able to reprogramme mouse liver cells in the laboratory to make them produce insulin, and have them injected into type 1 diabetic mice, resulting in improved blood sugar control.3 In this case, the liver cells were modified by adding extra pancreatic genes to them.

Genetically modified humans next?

People with type 1 diabetes deserve to be given every chance of a cure for what can be a restricting and debilitating condition. The “cell therapy” approaches described above do seem to offer hope of that. But, going further down this road brings moral, ethical and safety issues that can’t be ignored. We are all familiar with the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms in foods, but are we ready for genetically modified humans?

In May 2016, Chinese researchers announced that, for the second time, they had genetically modified human embryos, with the aim of making them immune to HIV infection.4 And, three months earlier, British scientists were also given permission to genetically modify human embryos, on the condition that they were destroyed after seven days.

This year, a US biotechnology company called Editas Medicine plans to produce the world’s first genetically modified human beings. The project involves ‘genetically editing’ the DNA of babies with an eye disorder called ‘Leber congenital amaurosis’, which usually leads to blindness, with the objective of saving their sight.

All of this ground-breaking research is, of course, laudable for trying to reduce human suffering. At the same time, I can’t help wondering whether tinkering with our human genes may not backfire on us some day. I don’t know about you, but I think we should be very careful in playing God with the pancreas – or any other part of the body.

In my next blog post, I stay with the subject of type 1 diabetes and new findings that it may not, after all, be caused by a ‘faulty immune system’.

Wishing you the best of health,

Martin Hum
PhD DHD Nutritionist
for Real Diabetes Truth

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1. Pishesha N, Bilatea AM, Wibowo MC et al. Engineered erythrocytes covalently linked to antigenic peptides can protect against autoimmune disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017 March 07 (Online ahead of print).

2. Chakravarthy H, Gu X, Enge M et al. Converting adult pancreatic islet α cells into β cells by targeting both Dnmt1 and Arx. Cell Metab. 2017 Feb 12 (Online ahead of print).

3. Cerdá-Esteban N, Naumann H, Ruzittu S et al. Stepwise reprogramming of liver cells to a pancreas progenitor state by the transcriptional regulator Tgif2. Nat Commun. 2017; 8:14127.

4. Kang X, He W, Huang Y et al. Introducing precise genetic modifications into human 3PN embryos by CRISPR/Cas-mediated genome editing. J Assist Reprod Genet. 2016; 33(5):581-588.

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