Describing the process as "dedifferentiation", the researchers say that it highlights the plasticity of this cell type.
Similar outcomes have been achieved for the three additional types of cells which make up the islets of Lagerhans, and which produce insulin and other hormones in the pancreas.
"The potential for dedifferentiation of all the different cells that make up the islets of Langerhans is a totally new finding," said lead researcher Dr. Lawrence Rosenberg, Chief of the Division of Surgical Research at McGill''s Faculty of Medicine.
"At this stage, we can''t confirm whether the cells'' ability to turn into stem-like cells occur naturally in a healthy pancreas, but the results are very encouraging for the development of regenerative therapies to fight diabetes," he added.
According to him, the study opens up totally new avenues of investigation into the underlying causes of diabetes, and will validate the development of innovative treatments.
This study is the latest step in an extensive regenerative therapies research program based on a peptide called Islet Neogenesis Associated Protein (INGAP).
Dr. Rosenberg and his colleagues have demonstrated INGAP''s potential to induce new islet formation in the pancreas.
The researchers say that clinical trials with INGAP have shown that it is possible to regrow new functional insulin-producing cells in diabetic patients.
"We know that the peptide works, but we are still lacking certain theoretical bases to explain its mechanism. This finding will allow us to move ahead on firmer ground," said Dr. Rosenberg.