Scientists claim production of insulin, which regulates the amount of sugar in the blood, is controlled by up to 10 per cent of beta cells.
The dominant cells are part of ‘hubs’ in the pancreas, the new discovery published in Cell Metabolism, has found.
The findings provide a “revised blueprint” of how pancreatic islets – which are tiny clusters of cells scattered throughout the pancreas including beta calls – behave and could lead to the development of new drugs.
Researcher Dr David Hodson, who is from the University of Birmingham, said: “It has long been suspected that not all cells are equal when it comes to insulin secretion. These findings provide a revised blueprint for how our pancreatic islets function, whereby these hubs dictate the behaviour of other cells in response to glucose.
“These specialised beta cells appear to serve as pacemakers for insulin secretion. We found that when their activity was silenced, islets were no longer able to properly respond to glucose.”
The study’s co-lead Professor Guy Rutter, from Imperial College London, added: “This study is interesting as it suggests that failure of a handful of cells may lead to [type 2] diabetes.”
Beta cells represent between 65 and 80 per cent of the cells in pancreatic islets and their role is to store and release insulin. When working properly, they react to increases in blood sugar levels by releasing the stored hormone.
The team used a special technique known as optogenetic and photopharmacological targeting, which mapped the functions of insulin-producing cells and found that between one and 10 per cent of these cells controlled responses to blood glucose.
Research was carried out on islet samples from both human and rodents.
The study was funded by Diabetes UK and an MRC Project Grant and Dr Hodson was supported by Diabetes UK RD Lawrence and EFSD/Novo Nordisk Rising Star Fellowships.