What Are Pancreatic Beta Cells?

Mary McMahon

Pancreatic beta cells are specialized cells in the pancreas, an organ that plays a key role in digestion, that produce insulin and certain other compounds. These cells are particularly important for patients with some forms of diabetes, who have decreased numbers of beta cells or experience beta cell malfunction. This leads to lowered insulin production and causes problems with blood sugar, because this hormone is not available to effectively control glucose levels.

Pancreatic beta cells produce insulin and certain other compounds.
Pancreatic beta cells produce insulin and certain other compounds.

These cells can be found inside clusters of cells known as islets of Langerhans. The pancreas can contain upwards of a million islets, and beta cells make up around 70% of their contents. The pancreatic beta cells work with alpha and delta cells to produce compounds in response to signals from inside the body. They communicate with each other through a matrix of extracellular fluid that moves freely between them.

The pancreas gland aids in digestion and produces insulin.
The pancreas gland aids in digestion and produces insulin.

In addition to insulin, pancreatic beta cells make C-peptide, a byproduct of insulin production, and amylin. Amylin is also important for blood sugar regulation, as it helps with glycemic control. It tends to act more in the short term than insulin. It is possible to measure concentrations of C-peptide and insulin in routine testing to learn more about pancreatic function. A doctor can use these tests to see if the patient has a health problem related to the pancreas, and to determine the number of functional islets in use by the body.

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Low concentrations of C-peptide produced by pancreatic beta cells can suggest that there are fewer of these cells available. This can mean that a patient is not able to produce enough insulin to control blood sugar. The results of blood sugar testing can confirm or deny these findings and provide more insight into the patient's condition. A patient may have, for example, a rare tumor called an insulinoma.

Studies on pancreatic beta cells provide important insight into diabetes and other pancreatic disorders. Researchers working on cures and more effective controls for diabetes have an interest in how these cells form and what happens when they malfunction. It is possible to transplant islet cells from a matching donor to make up for declines in insulin production and reduce dependence on synthetic insulin injections and other medications a diabetic patient may need to use to control blood sugar. Patients who might be candidates for such a procedure can discuss their options with a physician to learn more about the transplant surgery, the risks, and the benefits.

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