The loss of insulin-producing beta cells by apoptosis is a hallmark of all forms of diabetes mellitus. Strategies to prevent beta cell apoptosis and dysfunction are urgently needed to restore the insulin-producing cells and to prevent severe diabetes progression. We recently identified the serine/threonine kinase known as mammalian sterile 20-like kinase 1 (MST1) as a critical regulator of apoptotic beta cell death and dysfunction. MST1 activates several apoptotic signalling pathways, which further stimulate its own cleavage, leading to a vicious cycle of cell death. This led us to hypothesise that MST1 signalling is central to the initiation of beta cell death in diabetes. We found that MST1 is strongly activated in a diabetic beta cell and induces not only its death but also directly impairs insulin secretion through promoting proteasomal degradation of key beta cell transcription factor, pancreatic and duodenal homeobox 1 (PDX1), which is critical for insulin production.Pre-clinical studies in various animal models of diabetes have reported that MST1 deficiency remarkably restores normoglycaemia and beta cell function and prevents the development of diabetes. Importantly, MST1 deficiency can revert fully diabetic beta cells to a non-diabetic state. MST1 may serve as a target for the development of novel therapies for diabetes that trigger the cause of the disease, namely, the destruction of the beta cells. The major current focus of our investigation is to identify and test the efficacy of potent inhibitors of this death signalling pathway to protect beta cells against the effects of autoimmune attack in type 1 diabetes and to preserve beta cell mass and function in type 2 diabetes. This review summarises a presentation given at the 'Can we make a better beta cell?' symposium at the 2015 annual meeting of the EASD. It is accompanied by two other reviews on topics from this symposium (by Heiko Lickert and colleagues, DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3949-9 , and by Harry Heimberg and colleagues, DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3879-6 ) and a commentary by the Session Chair, Shanta Persaud (DOI: 10.1007/s00125-016-3870-2 ).
Keywords: Apoptosis; Beta cells; Diabetes; Hippo pathway; Insulin; Islets; MST1; Mammalian sterile 20-like kinase; PDX1; Review.