What is a Beta Cell?

If you’re living with type 1 diabetes (T1D), you’ve probably heard a lot about ‘beta cells’ and the body’s misguided attack on these cells, resulting in T1D. For those of you who are just learning about the disease and how to manage it, JDRF wanted to provide an easy reference guide to understanding beta cells and their purpose in the body.

What is a beta cell?

Simply put, a beta cell is a unique cell in the pancreas that produces, stores, and releases the hormone insulin to control the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood.

What do beta cells do?

In a healthy pancreas, the beta cells respond to changes in blood glucose levels by releasing some of their stored insulin, a chemical messenger that helps move sugar from food sources into cells throughout the body which use it for fuel to stay alive. During this process, the beta cells continue to create more insulin for the next change in the body.

How does T1D change normal operations of beta cells?

In a person living with T1D, the body’s own defense system (the immune system) attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. When the beta cells are destroyed, no insulin can be produced. This causes sugar to stay in the blood, where it can cause serious damage to all organ systems of the body, and starve cells of their normal energy source. Because of this, people with T1D must rely on injected or pumped insulin for the rest of their lives.

Healthy Person with Normal Pancreas

Type 1 Diabetes Disease Process

The Basic Challenges of Curing Type 1 Diabetes


Healthy insulin-producing
beta cells

Above, right:

1. Red arrows show misguided immune attack on the pancreatic beta cells.

2. Dark circles show the dying insulin-producing beta cells.

3. Insulin production declines & blood sugar levels rise too high.

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