A stem cell cure for diabetes is a step closer, scientists have predicted.
Stem cells could remove the need for insulin replacement
A team at Toronto University found immature cells in the pancreas of adult mice that were able to develop into cells that produce insulin.
If the same precursor cells are present in humans, it may be possible to cure diabetics who have to take insulin.
The scientists, whose work appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology, plan further studies.
In diabetes, the amount of sugar in the blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly.
Normally, this sugar is broken down in the body by the hormone insulin, which is produced by beta cells in the pancreas.
People with Type 1 diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes, develop the disease because their beta cells are destroyed.
They have to inject themselves with insulin to control their blood sugar.
The Toronto University scientists believe their laboratory discovery could avoid this by generating new beta cells to cure the insulin deficiency.
Lead researcher Dr Simon Smukler said: "People have been intensely searching for pancreatic stem cells for a while now, and so our discovery of precursor cells within the adult pancreas that are capable of making new pancreatic cells is very exciting."
He now aims to prove that the cells they found in mice are true stem cells - immature cells that can renew themselves and have the potential to become many different types of cell.
He is hopeful this is indeed the case because the immature pancreatic cells were able to develop into cells of the nervous system as well as beta cells.
Professor Anne Cooke, from the Stem Cell Institute at the University of Cambridge, said it was "an encouraging first step" which could hopefully be followed through to the production of stable cell populations secreting insulin in real life conditions.
She said the real test would be whether the cells could restore normal glucose levels in people with diabetes.
Philip Casey, care adviser at Diabetes UK said the results were "extremely interesting".
"The prospect of finding a way to produce islets cells to cure Type 1 diabetes is the Holy Grail of diabetes research," he said.
"Although there is still much to be understood about the role of stem cells in human diabetes mellitus, these results are promising.
"Diabetes UK looks forward to seeing the results of this study being advanced from work on mice to humans."