Research into a rare genetic disorder of the pancreas may speed up progress towards stem cell treatments for diabetes, according to researchers.
The study provides clues to how unspecialised stem cells might be programmed to become insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells.
In pancreatic agenesis, the body is unable to produce a pancreas, which plays an essential role regulating blood sugar levels.
The new research links the disorder to a gene called GATA6, which appears to play a key role in the development of pancreatic cells.
Scientists identified a defective form of GATA6 in 15 out of 27 individuals with pancreatic agenesis.
Professor Andrew Hattersley, from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Exeter, said: "This rare genetic condition has provided us with a surprising insight into how the pancreas develops.
"What is it that programmes cells to become pancreatic beta cells? Our study suggests that GATA6 plays a very important role in this process and we hope this will help the crucial work to try and make beta cells for patients with type 1 diabetes."
Type 1, or insulin dependent, diabetes is an auto-immune disease in which the body's own defences attack and destroy pancreatic beta cells. Patients have to inject themselves with insulin to stay alive.
Most patients with diabetes have the type 2 version which is linked to lifestyle and obesity. It produces a gradual decline as the body stops responding to insulin and beta cells slowly cease to function.
The new research is published in the journal Nature Genetics.
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