Gene finding provides new insights into pancreas development and helps search for type 1 diabetes cure

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers have discovered that a gene that is essential for making the pancreas in humans is not present in almost all other animals.
  • The findings may have important implications for diabetes research and treatment. 

The pancreas is an organ essential for the regulation of blood sugar in all vertebrate animals. Until now, scientists have assumed that genes essential for development of key organs and functions, such as regulation of blood sugar by the pancreas, were highly conserved through evolution, meaning the genetic pathway remains the same between different species, from fish to humans. Now, however, scientists have made a unique and surprising discovery—a gene that is essential for making the pancreas in humans is not present in almost all other animals. The gene, called ZNF808, is only found in humans, other apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, and in some monkeys, such as macaques. The study, published in Nature Genetics, challenges assumptions about how the regulation of development evolves. It also shows just how different humans can be to other animals often used in research, such as mice, emphasizing the importance of studying the human pancreas.

Lead author Dr. Elisa De Franco, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said, “Our finding is really surprising—this is the only example we know of where a gene that is fundamental to the development of an organ in humans and primates is not present in other animals. You’d expect a gene only found in primates to regulate a feature that is specific to primates, such as brain size, but it is not the case for this gene, which instead is involved in development of an organ shared by all vertebrates! We think this shows that there must have been an evolutionary shift in higher primates to serve a purpose.”

Professor Timo Otonkoski, from University of Helsinki, said, “The ultimate goal of our research is for this knowledge to be translated into being able to manipulate stem cells to produce beta cells that can produce insulin in the laboratory. That could be the key to curing type 1 diabetes, [a disease in which few if any working beta cells survive]. Our finding is a significant step in understanding what makes the human pancreas unique, which could help progress this area.”

Source: University of Exeter, Medical Xpress, November 16, 2023; see  source article