Young Blood Vessels Rejuvenate Aged Insulin-Producing Beta Cells

Professor Per-Olof Berggren Rolf Luft at the Research Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology at Karolinska Institutet has led an important study in collaboration with Alejandro Caicedo at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Hong Gil Nam at DGIST from the Republic of Korea that demonstrates that young capillary vessels can rejuvenate aged pancreatic islets. This study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA and challenges prevailing views on the causes of age-dependent impaired glucose balance regulation, which often, in older patients, develops into type 2 diabetes mellitus.  These results suggest that treating inflammation and fibrosis in the small blood vessels of the pancreatic islets might provide a new way to treat age-dependent dysregulation of blood glucose levels.

“This is an unexpected but highly important finding, which we expect will have a significant impact on diabetes research in the future. The results indicate that beta cell function does not decline with age, and instead suggest that islet function is threatened by an age-dependent impairment of vessels that support them with oxygen and nutrients”, says Berggren.

Pancreatic beta cells are in the pancreatic islets and secrete the hormone insulin, which regulates blood glucose levels and also is one of the most important anabolic hormones of the human body.  Ageing may lead to a progressive decline in glucose regulation which may contribute to the onset of diabetes.  Generally, it has been assumed that this is due to reduced capacity of the beta cell to secrete insulin or multiply.

“In the study we challenged the view that the age-dependent impairment in glucose homeostasis is solely due to intrinsic, dysfunction of islet cells, and hypothesized that it is instead affected by systemic aging factors”, says first author Joana Almaça at the Diabetes Research Institute, University of Miami.

Even though the common wisdom in modern medicine is that insulin-producing pancreatic beta cell lose function through the constant demands on them,  Berggren and his collaborators showed that mouse and human beta cells are fully functional at advanced age.  When they replaced the islet vasculature in aged islet grafts with young capillaries, the investigators found that the islets were rejuvenated and glucose homeostasis fully restored.

“While expanding beta cell mass may still be desirable for future diabetes therapy, improving the local environment of the otherwise healthy aged beta cell could prevent age-associated deterioration in glucose homeostasis and thereby promote healthy ageing, which is conceptually novel and highly exciting”, says Per-Olof Berggren.