The Universe Within: Tiny Cathedrals

The stained glass architecture of these insulin-producing cells found deep inside a mouse pancreas brings new meaning to the idea that our bodies are temples.  Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s are studying these cell groups, known as islets of Langerhans, to learn more about diabetes – a disease that has been rising along with the obesity epidemic in America.

A healthy pancreas contains about 1 million islets that crank out insulin every time we eat to help keep our blood sugar levels in balance. Uncontrolled blood sugar can lead to heart attacks, stroke, blindness and limb amputations.  In Type I diabetes, a malfunctioning immune system destroys beta cells within the islets, preventing them from producing any insulin. In Type II diabetes, the islets still produce insulin but the body becomes resistant, which can “burn out” the pancreas as it tries to produce ever higher amounts of insulin.

This unusually detailed 3D image focuses on a single islet that measures about 100 microns across. It would take about 250 islets to span an inch.

The image was constructed from multiple images taken with a laser scanning confocal microscope.  The cells are prepared with special stains that glow in various colors when exposed to the microscope¹s laser light. In this image, the purple outlines individual cells within the islet. The red stain shows the location of insulin within each cell.

The image was produced by J. Matthew Kofron, PhD, and Diva Jonatan, PhD, for a research project led by James Wells, PhD. Learn more about the Wells lab.

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Tim Bonfield

About the Author: Tim Bonfield

Tim Bonfield is an associate in Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Children's. He joined the medical center in 2009 after 17 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer as an award-winning health beat writer, assistant local news editor and Butler-Warren bureau chief. Tim is a proud Cincinnati native and the frazzled father of two teen daughters.

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