When researchers from the University of Ottawa and The Ottawa Hospital found a bacteria-killing protein (cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide, or CAMP) in the pancreas, they were confused: why would a protein like that be found in a place that is rarely exposed to bacteria?

It transpires that the protein was helping the pancreas to regenerate, thereby stimulating the production of insulin. The findings could lead to new treatments for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

The team had previously hypothesised that CAMP was closely linked to type 1 diabetes, but they hadn’t been able to work out how.

“We were looking for this bacteria-killing protein in various parts of the body, and as expected, we found high levels in the gut tissues that are exposed to bacteria,” explained Dr. Fraser Scott, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital and Professor at the University of Ottawa. “However, we also found it in the pancreas, which was a complete shock because the pancreas isn’t typically exposed to bacteria.”

To find out, the researchers added CAMP to pancreatic cells in a lab. It doubled the secretion of insulin, and it was also produced by the same pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production.

Next, the researchers engineered a group of rats to develop diabetes, then gave them CAMP. This time, the protein increased pancreatic regeneration and increased the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut. In diabetes-prone rats, CAMP was less prevalent, compared to normal rats.

“Our study uncovers an intriguing new role for this protein in pancreas function and regeneration, with possible links to diabetes-associated gut bacteria,” explained Dr. Scott. “We certainly don’t have all the answers yet, but our findings raise the exciting possibility of novel treatments for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

The findings are published in the journal Diabetes.