DRI Scientists Confirm Existence of Pancreatic Stem Cells That May Have Potential to Regenerate Into Insulin-Producing Cells

Human progenitor cells develop into pancreatic mini-organs when transplanted into immunodeficient mice. Shown in this micro photograph is one such mini-organ with insulin-producing cells (white) surrounded by pancreatic exocrine cells (red and green), entirely derived from isolated progenitors.

Miami, Fla. (May 13, 2020) – Scientists from the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have conclusively confirmed that progenitor cells within the pancreas of patients with diabetes continue to exist regardless of the duration of the disease. These findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), open the door to developing regenerative cell therapies for those living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Like stem cells, progenitor cells have the ability to differentiate into a specific type of cell, including insulin-producing islet cells. The notion that the pancreas harbors progenitor cells with the potential to regenerate islets has been hypothesized for decades, but the theory has remained contentious among scientists.

Now, for the first time, DRI researchers have been able to map out the location of these progenitors at the single-cell level within the pancreas.

“Our study goes beyond a mere theoretical exercise in bioinformatics. We confirmed our conclusions experimentally by transplanting the cells predicted to be progenitors and witnessing how they developed into functional pancreatic mini organs,” said Juan Dominguez-Bendala, Ph.D., director of pancreatic stem cell development for translational research at the DRI and co-principal investigator of the study alongside Ricardo Pastori, Ph.D., director of molecular biology.

“By characterizing these cells and showing that they exist in patients, no matter how long they’ve had the disease, our research paves the way to potential therapeutic interventions to ‘reawaken’ them inside the pancreas and stimulate the regeneration of the insulin-producing cells,” said Dr. Pastori.

The teams of Dr. Pastori and Dominguez-Bendala investigated nearly 5,000 individual cells from the pancreases of human donors. Their data confirm the paradigm-shifting notion that progenitor cells can regenerate into cells with distinct functions. Their analysis also suggested that a subpopulation of progenitor-like cells could actively differentiate into islet cells.

These significant findings address a major challenge that stands in the way of discovering a biological cure for the disease.

In type 1 diabetes, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas have been mistakenly destroyed by the immune system, requiring patients to manage their blood sugar levels through a daily regimen of insulin therapy. Regenerating a patient’s own insulin-producing cells could be an efficient and safe solution for patients that would not require the harsh drugs of immunosuppressive therapy.


Juan Dominguez-Bendala PhD and Ricardo Pastori PhDThe Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine leads the world in cure-focused research. As one of the largest and most comprehensive research centers dedicated to curing diabetes, the DRI is aggressively working to develop a biological cure by restoring natural insulin production and normalizing blood sugar levels without imposing other risks. Researchers have already shown that transplanted islet cells allow patients to live without the need for insulin therapy. Some study participants have maintained insulin independence for more than 10 years. The DRI is now building upon these promising outcomes through its BioHub strategy, a multidisciplinary, three-pronged approach for addressing the major challenges that stand in the way of a cure: eliminate the need for anti-rejection drugs, reset the immune system to block autoimmunity, and develop an unlimited supply of insulin-producing cells. For more information, please visit or call 800-321-3437.


Contact: Lauren Schreier

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