Only human

Here’s the thing about the pancreas: After death, the digestive organ essentially digests itself.

That has made it hard for researchers to study human pancreatic tissue. Studies of diabetes, the most common disorder of the pancreas, have had to rely on animal tissue.

But Stanford scientists have developed a nationwide network that allows the pancreas to be removed from organ donors and studied within a day and a half after death. Their recent study of tissue from this network highlights the importance of two genes linked to diabetes but not previously known to be active in the pancreas — a discovery that could not have been made by examining the pancreas in mice, because the genes are not expressed there.

“This is a tantalizing link,” says senior author Seung Kim, MD, PhD, professor of developmental biology. “It appears that genes whose expression changes from childhood to adulthood may be disproportionately associated with an increased risk for diabetes.” Understanding the age-related changes in gene expression could lead to new diabetes treatments.

Postdoctoral scholar Efsun Arda, PhD, is the lead author of the study, published in the May 2016 issue of Cell Metabolism.