Hope for Type I Diabetics with News That the Disease May Develop More Slowly Than Thought
Type 1 diabetes may develop over a long period rather than suddenly striking the patient, new research into the disease suggests. This means doctors may have years in which to treat the disease and even prevent the total cessation of insulin production.
Type 1 diabetes is the less common form of this disease, which affects the way in which victims process sugars from the food they eat. In healthy people tissues called beta cells in the pancreas, a large gland tucked away behind the stomach, produce the hormone insulin. Insulin is released into the blood in response to rising levels of glucose in the bloodstream as a result of food being digested. It acts as a chemical messenger, instructing the muscles and other cells to absorb the glucose for their own energy needs. The cells take up the glucose and blood sugar levels fall back to normal. In a diabetic person, the disease has interrupted this cycle.
In type 1 diabetes, which commonly strikes younger people, an autoimmune response has destroyed the beta cells for reasons, which are not yet understood by medical science. The victim, usually a child or young person under 20, is diagnosed after showing symptoms like extreme fatigue, severe weight loss, increased thirst, and constant need to urinate. Unlike type 2 diabetes, in which symptoms can be improved by diet, exercise and weight loss, type 1 diabetes is as yet incurable and the diabetic will need insulin given as injections or via a pump, for the rest of his life.
Doctors had always believed that the autoimmune response struck quickly and the destruction of the beta cells was almost instant. However, new research suggests the beta cells may not all succumb at once, and that in fact some insulin production may go on for years or even decades after the disease’s onset. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital built on other studies, which have thrown up similar results, analyzing data and blood samples from 182 type 1 diabetics. The results were astonishing.
The team found that C-peptide, a marker for insulin production in the beta cells, was still being produced in type 1 patients many years after their diagnosis. Although the marker levels were lower in those who had been living with the disease for longer, even patients who had had diabetes for up to 40 were still producing insulin. Ten percent of those who had had diabetes for between 31 and 40 years were still secreting some of the hormone.
This exciting discovery suggests that it may not be too late for type 1 diabetics even after years of having the disease, and there may be hope for boosting beta cell function and restoring more adequate insulin production. While the beta cells are still functioning, even at such a low level, the hope exists that they can be repaired or stimulated to continue their vital work. This brings new hope for type 1 diabetics, who make up around 10% of all diabetics but who cannot improve their condition as type 2 diabetics can by improving their lifestyle, as lifestyle was not implicated in the first place.