Swedish scientists have shed new light on how the insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas keep our blood glucose levels stable and so prevent the development of diabetes. The work, which was partly funded by the EU, is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

When sugar enters the blood after being absorbed from our food, it needs to get out of the bloodstream and into the muscles (where it provides energy) or the liver and fat tissue (where it is stored). If it is not removed from the blood, diabetes occurs.

The hormone that regulates this transport of sugar from our blood into other tissues is insulin, which is released by the special insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas called beta cells.

The membrane of the beta cells contains channels which are able to detect the amount of sugar in the blood and control sugar-stimulated insulin secretion. In this latest study, the researchers investigated how the beta cell keeps the right number of these channels at the cell surface to be able to respond efficiently to changes in the blood's glucose levels. This is important because the sensitivity of the cells to glucose stimulation depends on the number of these channels.

They found that glucose increases the number of these channels on the surface of the cell. The cell stores newly-manufactured channels inside special structures which do not contain insulin. When blood sugar levels rise, these structures move to the surface so that the channels can take their place in the cell membrane.

In this way, the beta cells are able to respond quickly to changes in blood sugar levels, and ensure that they stay within normal limits.

EU funding for the research came from the EURODIA (Functional genomics of pancreatic beta cells and of tissues involved in control of the endocrine pancreas for prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes) project, which is funded through the 'Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health' thematic area of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

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