Aims/hypothesis: Type 2 diabetes is a bi-hormonal disease characterised by relative hypoinsulinaemia and hyperglucagonaemia with elevated blood glucose levels. Besides pancreatic beta cell defects, a low number of beta cells (low beta cell mass) may contribute to the insufficient secretion of insulin. In this study our aim was to determine whether the alpha cell mass is also altered.
Methods: Using a point counting method, we measured the ratio of alpha to beta cell areas in pancreas samples obtained at autopsy from 50 type 2 diabetic subjects, whose beta cell mass had previously been found to be 36% lower than that of 52 non-diabetic subjects.
Results: The topography of alpha and beta cells was similar in both groups: many alpha cells were localised in the centre of the islets and the ratio of alpha/beta cell areas increased with islet size. The average ratio was significantly higher in type 2 diabetic subjects (0.72) than in non-diabetic subjects (0.42), with, however, a large overlap between the two groups. In contrast, the alpha cell mass was virtually identical in type 2 diabetic subjects (366 mg) and non-diabetic subjects (342 mg), and was not influenced by sex, BMI or type of diabetes treatment.
Conclusions: The higher proportion of alpha to beta cells in the islets of some type 2 diabetic subjects is due to a decrease in beta cell number rather than an increase in alpha cell number. This imbalance may contribute to alterations in the normal inhibitory influence exerted by beta cells on alpha cells, and lead to the relative hyperglucagonaemia observed in type 2 diabetes.