Dr Tang’s research is featured this week on Michigan Tech’s home page.
By Allison Mills MicroRNA strands were once thought of as junk genetic material. Now, researchers know that these small structures help program surrounding genes, affecting everything from eye color to cancer. For diabetes, one such connection is a classic whodunit—it was miR-483 with the SOCS3 protein in the pancreas. Unraveling this mystery is the subject of a new paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Xiaoqing Tang, one of the study co-authors and an assistant professor of biology at Michigan Technological University, is poised. She is as calm as you’d expect a sleuth to be, and she explains the complex interactions of pancreatic microRNA with the meticulousness of a crime scene investigator.
First, Tang says, we have to start with the big picture—the pancreatic cells where these genes interact.
“We’re interested in the alpha and beta cells,” says Tang, explaining that beta cells secrete insulin and alpha cells secrete glucagon, which regulate our blood sugar levels. A normal ratio is generally 80 percent beta cells and 15 percent alpha cells. “In type 2 diabetic patients, the ratio is imbalanced and we see beta cell loss and alpha cell expansion,” the researcher says.
Balancing these hormones is difficult to coordinate because several organs—the liver and brain as well as the pancreas—are involved. But the real nuance is within the alpha and beta cells themselves.