Researchers in the UK have found that long-term type 1 diabetes sufferers may still be able to produce low levels of insulin.
The landmark finding, published in the journal Diabetologia, goes against the long-held belief that all of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are destroyed within a few years of type 1 diabetes developing, and could lead to the development of preventative medicines for the disease.
Scientists from the University of Exeter Medical School conducted a study of 74 type 1 diabetes patients to test for natural insulin production in response to food, a key indicator of beta cell activity.
They found that almost three quarters (73%) of the diabetic volunteers produced a low level of insulin, regardless of the length of time the participants had been living with the autoimmune condition, suggesting that they still possessed a small amount of beta cells.
“It’s extremely interesting that low levels of insulin are produced in most people with Type 1 Diabetes, even if they’ve had it for 50 years,” commented lead author Dr Richard Oram, of the University of Exeter Medical School.
“The fact that insulin levels go up after a meal indicates these remaining beta cells can respond to a meal in the normal way – it seems they are either immune to attack, or they are regenerating.”
Using new technologies, Dr Oram said that his team were able to detect levels of insulin far lower than was previously possible and so low “that scientists had previously thought no insulin was produced”.
“We are now able to study this area in much more detail,” he added. “By studying differences between those who still make insulin and those who do not, we may help work out how to preserve or replenish beta cells in type 1 diabetes. It could be a key step on the road to therapies which protect beta cells or encourage them to regenerate.
“The next step is a much larger-scale study, to look at the genetics and immune systems of people still making insulin, and to answer the important question of whether the complications of type 1 diabetes are reduced in people with low levels of insulin.”
The study was supported by the National Institute for Health Research via the Exeter Clinical Research Facility.

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