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New stem cells found in the pancreas

29 August 2012

Researchers at University of California, San Diego have identified cells in the pancreas that show all the markers of stem cells.

For the first time, the team have identified stem cells in the human pancreas. The cells had a marker called SSEA4 on their surface which is found only in stem cells. When the cells were grown in a lab and given certain chemical signals, they no longer showed SSEA4, as they turned into more specialised pancreatic cells such as those that make hormones like insulin.

The stem cells were not found in islets but instead were found in the pancreatic duct, which links the pancreas to the gut. It has long been thought that there are stem cells in the pancreas but this is the first time cells with the specific marker SSEA4 have been found.

Stem cells are primitive cells that can be turned into other more specialised cells under the right conditions. Scientists think that these cells could be coaxed into becoming insulin-producing beta cells if the right signals are found.

Identifying markers for pancreatic stem cells means that in the future, it will be easier to specifically pull out the stem cells from a sample with many different cell types in it.  This will help studies that aim to grow pancreatic stem cells and develop ways to turn them into beta cells.

Maebh Kelly, Research Communication Officer at JDRF said, ‘The identification of stem cells in the pancreas opens up new avenues for researchers trying to cure type 1. This study helps us understand how the pancreas makes new cells.'

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