New findings on pancreatic anatomy may affect diabetes research and treatment

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers at Umeå University have succeeded in imaging an entire human pancreas in microscopic resolution. 
  • The results may be of great importance for diabetes research, especially when developing new forms of treatment. 

The pancreas is a key organ for the development of diabetes, a disease that today affects over half a billion people. It contains millions of small cell clusters, the so-called islets of Langerhans, which function to regulate blood sugar levels in the body. The islets chiefly contain beta- and alpha-cells that produce the hormones insulin and glucagon, respectively. Insulin is secreted into the bloodstream and acts much like a key to unlock the body’s cells so that they can take up sugar (glucose) after a meal, the main form of energy used by the body. Glucagon in turn releases glucose stores when we need a supply of energy. These two cell types also communicate directly with each other to optimize the correct glucose level in the body.

Since the islets of Langerhans make up only a small percentage of the pancreas, they have historically been very difficult to study directly within the pancreas. In most cases, researchers have had to study tissue sections that only provide a 2D image of a very small part of the organ. 

Now, in a study published in Nature Communications, Umeå researchers have used optical 3D techniques in which different cell-types are marked with fluorescently colored antibodies. “By dividing the entire organ into smaller parts, we enable the antibodies to get where they need to go. Since we know where each piece comes from, we can then, after scanning the different parts individually, ‘reassemble’ the entire pancreas again using computer software. This allows us to perform a plethora of calculations and study which cell-types are present, as well as where they are located in 3D space, as we know the 3D coordinates, their volume, shape and other parameters for each and every stained object in the entire organ,” says Ulf Ahlgren, professor at the Department of Medical and Translational Biology. 

In addition to new data on how insulin-producing cells are distributed in the pancreas, the researchers now show that glucagon-producing cells are not present in as many as 50% of the islets of Langerhans that do contain insulin-producing cells. This is contrary to what was previously thought, where islets were believed to contain both insulin- and glucagon-expressing cell-types with the same islet. 

The research team will now continue to work to see if their methods can be used to determine whether other cell types in the pancreas also contribute to the formation of the islets in a way that has not previously been known. In addition, they will study whether it looks similar in mouse models, which could affect the use of mice for preclinical diabetes research.

Source: Claes Björnberg, Medical Xpress, April 22, 2024; see source article