Aims/hypothesis: Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes mellitus is an autoimmune disease culminating in pancreatic beta-cell destruction. A role for apoptosis in this destruction has been suggested, although controversy exists over the identity of the apoptotic cells and the time of onset of apoptosis. This study investigates the extent and timing of islet cell apoptosis in vivo in the spontaneously diabetic BB/S rat.
Methods: Pancreatic biopsies were taken from 30 diabetes-prone and 6 diabetes-resistant BB/S rats matched for age. Animals were serially biopsied before, during and after development of diabetes and apoptotic cells analysed in serial sections. The diabetes-prone group included animals (n = 6) that had insulitis but did not develop diabetes.
Results: Apoptosis was not detected in any pancreatic sections from diabetes resistant animals at any age investigated or from any animal before 50 days of age. By 68 days, apoptosis was, however, detectable in both the diabetes-prone group and in the group that had insulitus but did not develop diabetes and this correlated with a decrease in pancreatic insulin staining and a development of insulitis. There was a further increase in apoptosis in the diabetes-prone group at 85 days, which coincided with the time of onset of diabetes (84 days). In addition, there was a sixfold increase in intra-islet apoptosis between 68 and 85 days in the diabetes-prone group and at 85 days intra-islet apoptosis was threefold higher in the diabetes-prone group than in the group that had insulitus but did not develop diabetes. At 107 days, apoptosis (total and intra-islet) was higher in the group that had insulitus but did not develop diabetes (OND-DP) than in either the diabetes resistant (DR) or diabetes-prone (DP) groups.
Conclusion/interpretation: We have shown significant islet cell apoptosis in the pancreas of diabetes-prone BB/S rats, which coincides with the appearance of insulitis and the onset of diabetes. We have also detected differences in the levels of apoptosis between diabetic and non-diabetic animals and suggest that such differences could be an important determinant of disease progression in this animal model of Type I diabetes.