Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Diabetes patients might produce insulin after all

People suffering from diabetes type 1 have a faulty immune system that attacks the cells responsible for the production of insulin. This hormone is extremely important for our metabolism, as it allows cells to take up glucose and therefore allows storage. This is important because glucose functions as the universal fuel for our body. Without insulin, levels of glucose in the blood reach dangerously high levels and patients die if left untreated. Long was thought that people with diabetes type 1, as opposed to patients with type 2 which simply have become insensitive to the hormone, do not produce insulin. Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered this may not be true. They found a pretty strong hint suggesting there is insulin production after all.

When the body produces insulin, there are a couple of intermediate steps that need to be performed. One of those steps involves the formation of a protein called C-peptide, which is exclusively made during insulin synthesis. It appears that even though it seems that patients with diabetes type 1 do not have any cells left that could be responsible for insulin production, C-peptide is still there.

The scientists investigated a total of 182 participants, and scanned the blood for the presence of C-peptide. Those who had been diagnosed with diabetes type 1 fairly recently, up to 5 years ago, were mostly still producing this biomarker: 80 percent of them had C-peptide in their blood. Even in the group diagnosed with diabetes type 1 between 31 and 40 years ago there were still patients producing C-peptide, though only about 10 percent. Because, as said, C-peptide is only made if a cell produces insulin, this is an important find.

Insulin production
It was hypothesized that insulin-producing cells disappear within a year of the onset of diabetes type 1. The immune system was thought to be getting rid of all the insulin-producing cells fairly quick. However, if a large percentage of the patients is still producing C-peptide 5 years after diagnosis, it indicates the insulin-producing cells are probably not totally lost after all. If the mechanism by which cells produce insulin is still present, we may have more time to let people recover from the disease and restore the normal production rate. One of the new methods that is currently being researched is restoring the required cells using stem cell therapy.

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