For years, the pancreas has been one of the most underrated organs of the human body. However, with the recent rise in diabetes, this long, flat gland hidden behind the stomach is a subject of interest for everyone—from your average Joe to numerous medical researchers.
Dr. Paul Langerhans, one of the earliest diabetes researchers, began taking a closer, microscopic look at the pancreas. In the 1860’s, he discovered that the pancreas has little islands of cells. So, much like a trans-oceanic explorer, Dr. Langerhans named the islands after himself—islets of Langerhans. According to the International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, it is estimated that an adult pancreas has about 2 million islets.
Dwelling inside these islets are several different types of hormone-producing cells, one of which is of particular interest in the field of diabetes—the beta-cells. They make up the majority of the islets (65-80% of them). What do they do there?
Well, when we think of diabetes and hormones, we instantly think of insulin. That is the main role of these beta-cells. They are tiny insulin-producing factories that control the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the blood.
Minute by minute, beta-cells can keep close tabs on blood sugar levels. These fascinating cells are able to respond to blood glucose spikes within minutes by both releasing insulin and producing more at the same time.
Unfortunately, in Type 1 Diabetes, these beta-cells are unable to do their job. Type 1 Diabetes is known as an autoimmune disease because the immune system attacks even healthy cells of its own body.
When cells of the immune system battle with beta-cells, the defenseless beta-cells lose either their function or their lives. Why the immune system attacks is still a subject of intense research. Regardless of the reason, this attack on beta-cells explains why those living with Type 1 Diabetes depend on an external source of insulin to keep their blood sugar under control. They no longer can depend on their destroyed beta-cells alone to produce the body’s insulin requirements. This can lead to elevated blood glucose levels, or hyperglycemia.
Researchers in the field of diabetes are not giving up easily. They are exploring several ways to combat the loss of beta-cells, such as beta-cell transplants and preserving the few beta-cells that survive immune system attacks. Scientists are gaining more and more insight as they investigate the intricate nature of beta-cells.