Using stem cells to create insulin-producing beta cells that could be transplanted into diabetics is being investigated as a possible cure for type 1 diabetes and treatment for type 2, but new research suggests that a special diet could reprogram cells in the pancreas to do the same thing. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) claim that a diet that mimics the effects of fasting spurs the growth of new insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreases of mice, essentially reversing the disease.

Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes center around insulin, or rather, the lack thereof. Put very simply, in type 1 diabetes, the body – specifically, the pancreas – stops producing insulin, while in type 2 diabetes, the body doesn't use insulin properly and eventually is unable to produce enough insulin to compensate. In both type 1 and late-stage type 2 diabetes, insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are lost, meaning many diabetics need to take insulin to replace what's not being made by the pancreas.

Looking to discover the effects of a fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) on diabetes sufferers, USC researchers used mice with type 2 diabetes and another group in which type 1 diabetes had been simulated by giving them high doses of a drug to kill their insulin-producing beta cells. They found that mice in both groups – even those in the later stages of the disease – regained healthy insulin production, had a reduction in insulin resistance, and had more stable blood glucose levels.

The researchers say the brief, periodic diet, which was designed to mimic the effects of a water-only fast, activated genes that are normally only switched on in the developing pancreases of fetal mice. These genes prompted the production of neurogenin-3 (Ngn3), a protein that led to the generation of healthy new beta cells in the adult mice.

Providing an indication that similar results could be expected in humans, the team, led by Valter Longo, the director of the Longevity Institute at USC's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, found that fasting also increased the expression of Ngn3 and sped up insulin production in pancreatic cell cultures from human donors with type 1 diabetes.

Such a diet could also have wider health benefits, with a previous study from the team demonstrating that human participants who followed the special FMD for five days each month in a three-month span cut their risks for not only diabetes, but also cancer, heart disease and other age-related diseases. Additionally, in another study that preceded that, the team says diet also showed potential for reducing visceral fat, increasing the effectiveness of chemotherapy for cancer treatments, and alleviating the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

The FMD, which is being marketed commercially under the name "Prolon," involves cutting one's calorie intake by around two-thirds for five days, during which the person's body doesn't recognize that they are eating, before returning to normal intake for the remainder of the month. The researchers are pursuing a larger FDA trial on the potential of the FMD to treat diabetes in humans, but it should be made clear that no one should embark on such a diet without first consulting their doctor.

The team's most recent study was published in the journal Cell.

Source: USC